Fall 2012

President Barack Obama has a unique relationship with the Middle East. The excitement was palpable in June 2009 when he arrived in Cairo to mend tensions. His “A New Beginning” speech extolled civilization’s debt to Islam, quoted from the Quran, and spoke of his own Muslim middle name, Hussein. Yet, throughout the region, disillusion with Obama has been spreading. In Egypt, 42 percent had confidence in Obama’s leadership in a 2009 Pew Global Attitudes poll; in 2012, the figure was down 13 percentage points.

This issue of the Cairo Review explores Obama’s world—from U.S. policies in the Middle East to everyday struggles in Middle America. Former State Department official Reza Marashi examines the festering conflict between the U.S. and Iran and pens a Memo to the President on how Obama can avoid war. In “Lost in the Middle East,” Princeton University Associate Professor Amaney A. Jamal questions Washington’s failure to address the grievances of ordinary citizens in the region. Brooklyn College Professor Moustafa Bayoumi reports on a darker side of Obama’s America: the rise of Islamophobia. We also present essays on what the latest Batman movie tells us about violence in America, the outlook for Obamacare, and how a new generation is turning the American tradition of political cartooning on its head. “New Orleans, Marching On,” writer Anne Gisleson’s paean to her native city, is an elegant testimony of the American spirit.

I first encountered Ryan Crocker in Beirut in 1983, his shirt spattered with blood as he searched the rubble of the bombed U.S. embassy for missing colleagues. His diplomatic career has taken him from one impossible challenge to the next, most recently being called out of retirement by President Obama to serve as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. We’re honored that Ambassador Crocker has joined us for The Cairo Review Interview. Few Americans have worked as assiduously and honorably toward a better Middle East.

Scott MacLeod
Managing Editor

Elections, American-Style

Cairo was dark when U.S. Representative Patricia Schroeder stepped off the plane in Egypt. Very dark. It was the beginning of the 1973 Middle East war, Israeli forces had reached Kilometer 101, and the capital was under a blackout. She had arrived with a congressional delegation from the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee to meet with President Anwar Sadat, then hunkered down at a desert military outpost. “We had no embassy here then,” she recalled, “so our delegation relied on the Swiss to ferry us around.” Schroeder recently returned, now retired from Congress, to a very changed Egypt, and in what turned out to be quite a different undertaking: briefing Egyptians on the flaws of democracy—American democracy, that is.

At the time of her initial visit to the country, Schroeder was a 32-year-old newly elected Democratic Party legislator from Colorado, one of only fourteen women in the Congress, and the first ever to secure a seat on the important Armed Services Committee. She had been elected on a platform calling for women’s rights and opposing the Vietnam War. Though a Harvard-educated attorney and an accomplished civil rights advocate, a local newspaper condescendingly greeted her candidacy with the headline, “Denver Housewife Runs for Congress.” Among the achievements of her twenty-four years in Congress, she was instrumental in the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, and co-founded the Congressional Women’s Caucus, which she chaired for ten years. On the Armed Forces Committee, she sparred with Cold War hawks and worked to curb military spending.

After Schroeder left Congress in 1997, she authored a memoir with the half-joking title, 24 years of House Work…and the Place Is Still a Mess: My Life in Politics. She recounted stories about how Washington works during a recent talk hosted by the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud Center for American Studies at the American University in Cairo. She now serves as a National Governing Board member of Common Cause, an organization promoting accountability in government and reforms to the campaign finance laws. She bemoaned the fact that in the 2012 presidential election, some 60 percent of campaign funding to the two main candidates was donated by just 16 percent of the American people. So-called “Super PACs” (Political Action Committees), which enable anonymous donors to funnel limitless amounts of money to candidates, have Schroeder worried about the state of democracy in the U.S.

Says Schroeder: “When you are a candidate now you wake up in the morning and their campaign managers say to them, ‘You have to raise this today. And if you don’t raise it, you have to raise double that tomorrow, and if you don’t raise that, then you have to raise triple that the next day.’” As a result, candidates spend their time on the phone fundraising rather than thinking about the country’s problems. “It shouldn’t be a big shock that when someone gives you a big check, they aren’t just doing it for good governance,” Schroeder explained. “They want something in return.”

Oriental Hall, etc.

Dispense with the notion that archives are endless rows of cabinets where bespectacled historians pour over dusty, yellowed records. Mosireen, which means “determined,” but is also a pun on the Arabic word for Egyptians, is a non-profit organization established in 2011 to document Egypt’s ongoing revolution. It has collected more than one thousand hours of video footage, largely shot by citizen journalists from the eighteen-day uprising and subsequent events, and is storing it on hard drives in the collective’s Cairo office as well as on YouTube. The challenge, says co-founder Sherif Gaber, is figuring out “how we can use it, deploy it and give it a continuous life—storage would be the worst thing, just to hold it. This is living material.” To Gaber, the events “remain as immediate as when they were first filmed.” Hence, rather than merely storing the footage, Mosireen is using it to produce short documentaries with the aim of building a historical narrative. Mosireen’s work was a highlight ofAesthetics and Politics: Counter Narratives, New Publics, and the Role of Dissent in the Arab World, a conference held in September at the American University in Cairo. Historian Khaled Fahmy explained how he as the director of a committee at the Egyptian National Archives tasked with archiving the revolution faced similar challenges. It’s one thing to collect data and design a systematic indexing process, he said. But given the incompleteness of political change in Egypt, he added, historians are asking themselves, “What is the revolution we want to document?”
Is an IMF loan un-Islamic? The question has been hotly debated since the election in June of President Mohammed Morsi, candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Some Islamists have campaigned against a proposed $4.8 billion IMF loan on grounds that its interest component  (1.1 percent) violates Sharia’s ban on riba, or usury. “It is imperative that Egypt take the IMF loan it has been offered,” Cairo University Economics Professor Ahmed Ghoneim told a recent Tahrir Dialoguespanel on “International Monetary Fund Loans to Egypt.” “There are incentives beyond the loan itself. From a fiscal point of view, Egypt needs the loan, but taking this loan will also force reform of Egypt’s monetary policy which has for too long been pushed aside.” Egypt’s first Islamist president seems to agree. With Egypt’s economy deteriorating since the January 25 revolution, he is backing the loan. “We would rather starve than eat off riba,” Morsi said at a national commemoration of the 1973 war with Israel on October 6. But, he quickly added, the IMF loan “does not constitute riba.”

Chomsky in Tahrir

Two hours beforehand, a crowd was already pressing the gate outside Ewart Hall on the Tahrir Square campus of the American University in Cairo. When American linguist and author Noam Chomsky arrived on stage, the packed audience of twelve hundred rose in a thunderous standing ovation. Few Americans could expect a hero’s welcome in Cairo, but Chomsky has long been a cult figure here for his stinging critiques of American imperialism and Israeli treatment of Palestinians.

The 84-year-old sage did not disappoint his admirers. Topping the list of Chomsky’s concerns is the possibility of an American-backed Israeli military attack aimed at destroying Iran’s nuclear program. The irony, Chomsky said, is that people in the Middle East and even Europe believe it is the U.S. and Israel, rather than Iran, which represents the greater threat to international peace. He noted that despite the focus on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while Israel, widely believed to be a nuclear weapon power, is not. To Chomsky, the U.S. and Israel are “two rogue states that disregard international law and are powerful enough to get away with it.” He called for serious negotiations toward a nuclear-free Middle East as a means to avoid a war with Iran.

Chomsky cast the struggle with Iran as part of America’s efforts to reverse a precipitous decline in its geostrategic position in the world. The waning of American power, he explained, can be mirrored in the rise of China, the growing independence of Latin American states and, more recently, in the Arab Spring. Said Chomsky: “Movements to independence and democracy are the biggest threat to [American power]. U.S. foreign policy and control interests rely on dictators that ensure that public opinion does not democratically manifest in policy.” Chomsky, author of more than one hundred books and Institute Professor and Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said his political writing is motivated by a genuine concern about the “world we are bequeathing to our children and grandchildren.”

It is, in his estimation, “not a pretty picture.”

Sailboat Diplomacy

The wake from a larger vessel rocked the felucca, a traditional Egyptian sailboat, heaving it against the pontoon it was docked beside. As water entered the hull, the two Americans aboard imagined their mission of personal diplomacy sinking along with their second-hand boat. Ayman Hazem, 25, their Egyptian captain, jumped into action and fashioned a plug out of a bar of soap. Then he called to men mixing concrete on the shore and acquired enough material to fill the hole permanently. The patch on their newly delivered breach held for the remainder of the hundred-day journey from Aswan to Alexandria.

Will Raynolds, 30, and Joshua Maricich, 31, knew what they were getting into when they set out to sail the length of the Egyptian Nile in September 2011. Both had sailing experience back home on the Pacific coast of the United States and had lived in the Middle East for years—Will as an archaeologist studying ancient ruins in Libya, Josh as a journalist reporting from Yemen. (They originally met as Fulbright scholars in Jordan in 2005.) When violent uprisings in those countries brought them to Cairo, they decided a 1,200-kilometer river journey would be a fascinating way to witness the changes taking place in Egypt—and perhaps foster some cultural ties along the way.

Aboard the felucca, which they christened Jasmine in honor of Tunisia’s Jasmine Spring revolt, Raynolds and Maricich moved slowly through the densely populated countryside, docking each night in villages that most Egyptians and certainly foreign tourists pass over on their way to bigger cities. The government assigned them a police detail to travel north of Luxor, an area known for sectarian violence and acts of terrorism. “It was hard for us to accept that security concerns were so dire,” said Raynolds. “In every village, they would welcome us but then warn us about the next village.” After docking one evening, gunshots on shore deterred them from leaving the Jasmine.

A few weeks later, a group of civilians who believed that Raynolds and Maricich may be foreign spies accosted them inside an Internet café in Upper Egypt. Days earlier, three American students had been arrested and deported for participating in clashes in Cairo. Raynolds and Maricich were questioned by local authorities, then released.

One of the reasons the travelers attracted attention in an area rarely visited by outsiders was the American flag flying from the stern. Fishermen cursed them, and in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, two children responded to the U.S. Stars and Stripes by hurling bricks at the Jasmine. More often, however, local residents opened their doors and hearts after spotting the foreign faces. “We put a different spin on what they think they know about America,” said Maricich.

The river journey ended in August, but Raynolds and Maricich are on a new mission: to contribute to a better understanding of Egypt, especially of its rural region and people, through speaking engagements inside the country at venues including the American University in Cairo, as well as in the United States. They also plan to publish a book about their hundred days on the Nile. The Egyptian family whosefelucca they purchased has put four generations on the river, from the times when such vessels were mainly used for trading rather than touristic excursions, and sailors knew every contour of the river’s flow. With the family rocked by harder economic times after the Egyptian revolution, the felcucca they sold to Raynolds and Maricich was the last the family owned. “Getting a taste for some of that knowledge that was handed down,” says Raynolds, “was a privilege.”

Remembering Medhat

I have worked in foreign affairs for most of my life and, whether serving in Japan, the United States, or in Egypt, I discovered that the calling of international relations is far more than the pursuit of policy and strategic interest. Such concerns form a framework for the conduct of international affairs. Yet, diplomacy, at its heart, is about relationships—building bridges, not just between nations, but between cultures and individuals. After leaving diplomacy to become the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo (AUC) in 2009, I had the good fortune to work with a man of great skill and quality of character who was an exemplary diplomat in that sense: Medhat Haroun, AUC’s provost, who passed away on October 18.

In paying tribute to Medhat, most will naturally recall a life marked by professional and academic success. He received his PhD in structural and earthquake engineering from the California Institute of Technology, and was a professor at the University of California, Irvine, for twenty years. He returned to teach in his native Egypt in 1999, initially as chair of AUC’s Engineering department, before becoming dean of the School of Sciences and Engineering in 2005, and provost in 2011. Awards and plaudits for excellence in teaching seemed to follow wherever his career took him, while his tireless dedication and optimistic vision enriched everyone he worked with. He generated millions of dollars in funding for undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degree programs in such diverse fields as nanotechnology, biotechnology, and computer engineering. One of his proudest accomplishments was establishing AUC’s first PhD program in applied sciences and engineering.

Among his many achievements in the field of engineering was Medhat’s work as an expert in the construction of actual bridges. He was well known for his efforts to make them safe in the event of earthquakes. To me, his ability to build human bridges is what truly defined him. When I arrived at AUC, I quickly realized how little I knew about what it meant to be a dean of a school. AUC President Lisa Anderson, who was provost at that time, pointed me in Medhat’s direction, fondly describing him as “the real thing.” Medhat and his wife Rita immediately invited my wife and I for dinner at their home. We spent several hours discussing world politics, Egypt, and AUC. When I finally posed my mundane questions about the challenges of running a school, there was no lecturing, no condescension in his voice. He gave his advice freely and effortlessly in a manner that at once put me at ease and gave me everything I needed to know.

Medhat was a natural teacher and leader. He was a skilled communicator, who truly understood the wants and needs of others. Medhat’s gifts were once again on display when a student strike shut down AUC early in the Fall 2012 Semester. despite his worsening struggle with cancer, he remained at the forefront of negotiations with the students and efforts to re-open the campus gates. That was Medhat Haroun, a man dedicated to bringing people together and bridging the cultural, political, and ideological divides that separate so many. We will miss his energy, his passion in his work, and his overwhelming sense of fairness, which seemed to guide everything that he did.



Nabil Fahmy is the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.

Twilight of the Elites

Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. By Christopher Hayes. Crown, 2012. 304 pp.

Eighteen hours before Hurricane Katrina hit the coast of Louisiana on August 29, 2005, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation of the city and warned that the hurricane was “a storm that most of us have long feared.” It was too little, too late. More than 300,000 residents didn’t manage to get out. Government preparations and emergency responses at local, state, and federal levels proved tragically inept. That fateful Monday morning, fifty-three federally constructed and maintained levees in the area failed, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans. By the time the waters receded, 1,400 people had died and citizen trust in government had been shattered. Katrina had become the costliest disaster in American history in more ways than one.

In the years since, the question has persisted: how could the government’s performance have been so awful? Yet similar breaches are everywhere. In Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Christopher Hayes ties together a decade of American failures—the Katrina disaster, the Enron accounting fraud scandal, the subprime mortgage financial crisis, illegal performance enhancement steroids in professional sport, and sex abuse in the Catholic Church among others—with a thesis about class and government in America: today’s new elites are ruining the country.

Hayes, the editor-at-large of the Nation and a host on MSNBC, builds his argument on several interlocking conclusions about twentieth century America. After World War II, prosperity and unprecedented amounts of higher education among Americans coming of age in the 1960s opened up the selection process for which America would form its elite class during the latter half of the century. The new process was far more meritocratic than any in the past, when everything from race and gender to geography had posed barriers to upward mobility.

This meritocracy feels like the fairest social order that America has ever had. It gives everyone a chance to make it to the top. “Where the establishment emphasized humility, prudence, and lineage, the meritocracy celebrates ambition, achievement, brains, and self-betterment,” Hayes argues. Belief in meritocracy is arguably the most widely shared political belief in an increasingly diverse and divided country, accommodating the liberal desire for more inclusion and opportunity and the conservative desire for individualism. Yet, it turns out that the meritocracy isn’t working very well after all. As Hayes argues, it is corrupted by (among other things) greed, abundant opportunities and incentives to cheat, and the simple fact that the elites of government and business are so far out of touch with the public that they can’t possibly do what’s best for it.

America is not, nor has it ever been, a level playing field. Nowhere is this more visible than in the vastly disparate education system, where public schools are in a state of constant disrepair but children from rich families have a buffet of options to help them get ahead in school from day one: preschool, private school, and a booming test prep industry to name a few. In the meritocracy, the super-rich have tools at their disposal—including the ability to bend the law and ultimately insulate themselves from the law entirely—that help them both stay rich and get richer. Hayes cites the steroid scandals in Major League Baseball, for example. Players like Jose Canseco became superstar hitters by pumping themselves full of steroids, leading others to either follow suit or fall behind. Conseco’s salary jumped from $75,000 to $1.6 million, three times the league average, in just three years. Fan excitement over superstar performances enabled MLB to prosper and create a disincentive to crack down on illegal performance-enhancement practices. “The entire sport was caught up in a home run bubble,” Hayes says.

Taken together, these stories depict a country with a terrifying track record in the midst of a terrifying identity crisis. Hayes does a nice job of bouncing between moments of elite failure to pop psychology and research, to personal anecdotes—but building an argument this way is a little manipulative. Twilight of the Elites paints the last decade in its most extreme moments and leaves out the pieces that don’t fit (the Eurozone crisis, a struggling education system) and the bright spots (gay rights, health care reform). Failures that preceded the decade, such as Watergate or the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, are almost invisible.

Twilight
does provide a useful and pitch-perfect explanation of youth frustration with America and with President Barack Obama. Young progressives are more or less adrift in American politics today. Yet a few years ago, in 2008, America’s youth was fervently re-enfranchised by Obama’s run for the presidency and turned out in record numbers to elect him and his platform of “Change.” This excitement didn’t even last until the midterms. “Young Voters Say They Feel Abandoned,” read a headline in the New York Times in October 2010 that chronicled the “unexpected distance” that had emerged by that time between Barack Obama and the Millenials.

Many have said this falling out was inevitable; no President could cater to the sky-high expectations that young progressives had for Obama, especially when he inherited an economic crisis that would dominate much of his first term.

But there’s another way to interpret why young progressives were so disappointed: President Obama’s open and enthusiastic connection with America’s youth felt like a breach in the social distance that exists today between the public and the governing elite, but that feeling evaporated when as President, Obama failed to make young progressives feel any more heard by or represented in the White House. After the housing bubble burst and the ensuing financial crisis began, Obama pulled one baby boomer technocrat with a Wall Street background after another into his inner circle. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel spent years in the Clinton administration and two and a half years as an investment banker at Wasserstein, Perella & Co., where he made more than $18 million, before entering the Obama administration. When Emmanuel left to run for mayor of Chicago, Obama replaced him with William Daley (Clinton administration, JP Morgan Chase), and Daley was later succeeded by Jack Lew (Clinton administration, Citigroup).

Young liberals may have been naïve to think that Obama would usher in a new and exciting era of progressive politics, especially after the financial crisis, but their resentments are still valid. The country is larger and more complex, the rich are richer, and the “have-nots” (namely the young and members of the working class) have to climb more rungs through the social stratosphere than in the past to be heard by those at the top. As a candidate, Barack Obama seemed to understand that distance and know how to bridge it, but as president he did not. In no sense was the 2012 presidential election, in which a millionaire with a JD from Harvard (Barack Obama) ran against a billionaire with a JD MBA from Harvard (Mitt Romney) a referendum on the elite.

Twilight of the Elites
predicts that, as a country, America will likely continue fumbling forward until the system becomes so unsustainable that it will finally reach a crisis that it can’t pull itself out of. Or, as Hayes suggests, the 99 percent manages to convince the elite that the present state of affairs is so unsustainable and so far from the public interest that it needs to help chart a path towards a truly more equitable society.



Maggie Severns
is a policy analyst for the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program. She has written for the Washington Post, Washington Monthly, Slate, and Salon. On Twitter:@MaggieSeverns.

Kill or Capture

Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency. By Daniel Klaidman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 304 pp.

Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman provides the first definitive account of the Obama administration’s wide-ranging counterterrorism policies—from the fate of Guantánamo Bay and indefinite detention to terrorism trials and the legality of targeted killings. Klaidman’s account reveals both the tense deliberations within Obama’s inner circle and the fear-mongering that politicized his counterterrorism policies. What makes Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency particularly interesting is how it sheds light on the paradox of post-9/11 America: how a country that views itself as a paragon of human rights and international law came to ignore the very values and constitutional protections it continues to champion.

Klaidman’s narrative follows the Obama presidency from the 2008 campaign to the 2012 presidential election, exposing the real story behind why an administration that so appealed to lofty ideals repeatedly abandoned its pledge to harmonize America’s values with national security. For instance, candidate Obama promised to reclaim America’s moral standing by closing Guantánamo Bay, ending indefinite detention, and bringing terrorists to justice in civilian courts. But President Obama, despite signing a series of executive orders that banned coercive interrogation methods and terminated America’s secret overseas prisons (“black sites”), faced a number of challenges shutting down Guantánamo.

Would terror suspects be brought to the mainland and prosecuted in civilian courts? Did enhanced interrogation methods taint the evidence needed to win convictions? What about detainees who had trained in Al-Qaeda camps, but had not necessarily committed any crimes for which they could be prosecuted? Eventually, Obama claimed the authority to hold terrorism suspects in prolonged detention indefinitely without trial, in a symbolic rather than a substantive reversal from the stance of his predecessor that alienated some in his liberal base.

Divisions, both among Obama’s advisers and within partisan Washington, also derailed the president’s counterterrorism agenda. Klaidman writes that in the view of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, “Guantánamo was just a pain-in-the-ass distraction.” He and other like-minded advisors pushed for the administration’s laser-like focus on health care and the economy. Moreover, although President George W. Bush had transferred more than five hundred detainees out of Guantánamo—in an effort to shut down the prison in his second term—former Vice President Dick Cheney equated closing Guantánamo with freeing dangerous terrorists. Congress swiftly passed appropriation bills restricting the transfer of detainees. As Klaidman writes, “an institution increasingly defined by demagoguery was not the best place to develop sensible counterterrorism policies.”

Obama encountered another roadblock when his attorney general, Eric Holder, attempted to bring 9/11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammed and four co-conspirators to justice in a federal court in downtown Manhattan. Obama’s Republican opponents argued that terrorists were not entitled to the protections available in federal court, even though America’s closest allies had tried their terrorist defendants in the cities where Al-Qaeda attacks had occurred—Madrid, London, and Mumbai—and President Bush had routinely prosecuted terrorists in traditional criminal courts, including Zacarias Moussaoui and shoe bomber Richard Reid.

Time and again, a president who had rejected his predecessor’s “feel-it-in-the-gut, shoot-from-the-hip” national security response, sacrificed his own core principles on the altar of political expediency. One area in particular was Obama’s tightened grip over the secretive program of targeted killings using drones, and their expanded deployment beyond the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan into Somalia and Yemen.

Questions remain over so-called “signature strikes” or “crowd killing”: targeting groups of men who bore certain characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities were not necessarily known. It is uncertain whether officials knew whether those they targeted posed a specific and genuine threat to American interests. After all, if certain targets were not focused on attacking America, then the United States could not use international standards for self-defense as a justification for killing them. This makes Klaidman’s characterization of Obama as a “civil libertarian”—a term he neither defines nor fully explains—a bit curious.

Obama greased perhaps his slipperiest slope with the targeted killing of an American citizen neither formally charged with a crime nor convicted at trial: Anwar Al-Awlaki. An online propagandist and chief of external operations for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Awlaki influenced the Fort Hood shooter and recruited the 2009 Christmas Day bomber. However odious Al-Awlaki may have been, his killing raises complicated legal and moral questions about the danger of unfettered presidential power. In this respect, Kill or Capture successfully frames official day-to-day decision-making within the broader war on terror. The reader is naturally drawn to realize the book’s underlying point: America’s lack of a long-term detention policy may be perversely incentivizing kills over captures.



Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute. She has written for
Survival,Congressional Quarterly, the Harvard International Review, Foreign Policy, the Wall Street Journal Asia, Christian Science Monitor, Armed Forces Journal, Guardian, Washington Times, and other publications.

Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad

Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad. By David W. Lesch. Yale University Press, 2012. 288 pp.

“Whether or not he remains in power, Bashar Al-Assad, in my mind, has already fallen.” That is the assessment of David Lesch, who had the opportunity to visit Damascus for a number of sit-downs with the Syrian president before the Arab Spring. It is also a subtle mea culpa; Lesch forms part of the group of Syria experts who were pulling for Al-Assad after his early promise of reform.

With as close as any American might get to an inside view, Lesch’s Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, serves as a useful primer on Bashar’s time in power. It chronicles the uprising in Syria as it emerged from the cracks of Baath Party rule, growing from the endemic Syrian complaints that coalesced in the heat of the Arab Spring. In the morass of information and misinformation about Syria, Lesch’s book is a vital anatomy of the uprising and a perceptive profile of one man in power.

How did Al-Assad the unassuming ophthalmologist morph into Al-Assad the authoritarian butcher? The turning point, says Lesch, was his survival of a dual onslaught: the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. Both developments heaped international pressure on Damascus, with thinly veiled threats of regime change. That Al-Assad made it through those episodes bred his hubris. And after his 2007 re-“election,” a referendum on his rule that passed by 97 percent, Al-Assad became a product of his own propaganda. By 2008, Lesch describes Bashar Al-Assad as a man fully believing his own sycophants.

The road to revolution was partly paved by the gutting of the Baathist system that Al-Assad inherited with the death in 2000 of his father Hafez Al-Assad, who had ruled Syria for thirty years. There was a generational rift between the technocrats Bashar appointed to carry out his reforms and the old regime stalwarts of his father’s era, stakeholders in the status quo, who pushed back against change. The clearest battleground in that divide was Syria’s “social market economy,” the Bashar-brand liberalization policy that brought a surge in shopping malls, ATM machines, and shiny consumer goods. I covered this Syrian economic opening for Bloomberg Television in 2010, after a bevy of Wall Street names, including Bill Miller and Barton Biggs, visited the country to sniff out opportunities. What I found, and what they saw, was an upper crust of Syrian society newly able to flaunt its wealth. It was a flourishing wasta-cracy, a system where one’s wasta, Arabic for connections, had become extremely enriching.

For Syria, it posed a challenge beyond the normal social frustrations of inequality. The way liberalization was handled meant that for the first time BMWs were conspicuously cruising Damascus at the same time as lower and middle income Syrians were losing their subsidies and social security blankets. This strained the social contract and left practically nothing of Baath Party ideology: Pan-Arabism had failed, resistance to Israel was trite and frozen, and Syrian socialism was being shredded by the kingpins of the younger Al-Assad’s economic reform.

By the time revolution erupted in March 2011, there was but a brittle regime to hold on to. Its strongest card was popular attachment to the idea of a strong and unified Syria, one that only Al-Assad could conceivably deliver. As protests escalated into civil war, that promise was fulfilled in reverse: as the regime came under threat, it weakened and fractured the country. Syrians nominally live within the same borders they’ve known for a century, but a palpable division is becoming increasingly apparent between the central Sunni heartland of Hama and Homs, the Kurdish north, and the Western enclaves of Al-Assad’s ruling Alawite sect in Lattakia and Tartous.

Lesch sketches out key reminders of what we already know: that barring some sudden about face, Syria faces a drawn out fight, an attrition of forces internal and external. Al-Assad hangs on by creating a “favorable stalemate,” a civil war dominated by superior regime power. Lesch also reminds us that the opposition in exile is seen as illegitimate, while any internal opposition is chopped down before it can rise; Al-Assad diligently picks off all potential opponents.

But still Al-Assad falters, and as Al-Assad falters, Syria festers. And as Syria festers, it throws off sparks that could ignite the entire region. These ramifications were foremost in my mind as I put down Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad. Syria has become another arena for the region’s sectarian boxing match. For Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Gulf, the battle in Syria becomes a jab at Iran, a swipe at Hezbollah.

Lesch points out some yawning hypocrisies in the Arab Spring: the irony of Iran backing the Egyptian and Tunisian protesters against pro-Western governments, yet supporting the Syrian regime’s brutal crackdown on its citizens. Similarly, America calls for the end of Al-Assad while backing the monarch of Bahrain in his clampdown on protesters demanding rights. It is a reminder of how the Arab Spring has become a strategic battle as much as a struggle for freedom. Either way, it has left Syria stuck in a bloody quagmire.



Lara Setrakian is a journalist based in Dubai. She contributes to ABC News, Bloomberg Television, and
Monocle. She is the founder of Syria Deeply, an Internet platform for citizen journalists reporting from Syria. On Twitter: @lara.

Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire

Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire. By Deepa Kumar. Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2012. 238 pp.

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, various analytical frameworks have been proposed to understand the American relationship with the Middle East. In Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, scholar Deepa Kumar offers a look at the role of Islamophobia in the West and argues that it continues to inform U.S. foreign policy for both conservatives and liberals. By echoing and updating Edward Said’s critique, which holds that Orientalism continues to dominate much of Western academic study of the region, Kumar argues that, just as the creation of an exotic, irrational Muslim “other” facilitated European empires’ colonial subjugation of the Middle East, so too has a reductive, essentialist view of Islam been deployed to justify America’s military interventions since 9/11.

Kumar makes the case well—it’s not hard to find evidence for this. After all, following 9/11 Americans were fed a steady diet of images featuring Muslim violence, interspersed with claims regarding the centrality of such violence to the faith. In addition, half-baked treatises like Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East—in which the vaunted historian pointed to Middle Easterners’ failure to embrace European classical music as evidence of… well, I’m still not sure—were hailed as very serious arguments by very serious people. And the idea that American intervention was required to vault Muslims into the future did eventually help put American troops in Iraq.

Somewhat more provocative, and problematic, is the second half of Kumar’s argument: that Islamophobia in the U.S. continues to be a joint project between American conservatives and liberals. While the contours of conservative Islamophobia are familiar (Islam is intrinsically hostile to modernity, freedom, and the American way, etc.), its liberal variant is, in Kumar’s view, equally pernicious.

“The key characteristics of liberal Islamophobia,” Kumar writes, “are the rejection of the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis, the recognition that there are ‘good Muslims’ with whom diplomatic relations can be forged and a concomitant willingness to work with moderate Islamists.” While Kumar grants that “liberal Islamophobia may be rhetorically gentler” than the conservative version, she insists that it nonetheless “reserves the right of the U.S. to wage war against ‘Islamic terrorism’ around the world, with no respect for the right of self-determination by people in the countries it targets.” It is, Kumar concludes, “the ‘white man’s burden’ in sheep’s clothing.”

To be fair, there is some evidence of liberals’ collaboration, or at least pandering to, Islamophobia when it suits their political needs. The spectacle of Democrats attacking the Bush administration over the 2006 Dubai Ports World deal is one unfortunate example. To advance this argument further, however, Kumar resorts to stealing a few bases. Claiming that liberals went along with conservative efforts to spread fear about the Muslim background of candidate Barack Obama, Kumar cites a May 2008 New York TimesOp-Ed by Edward Luttwak (identified as “a fellow at the realist/liberal imperialist think tank” Center for Strategic and International Studies) in which he wrote that, as Obama was born to a Muslim father, his conversion to Christianity is a crime “under Muslim law.” But citing Luttwak and CSIS as “liberals” is problematic. Luttwak is a conservative-realist, and CSIS is a firmly centrist organization (full disclosure: I was a CSIS research intern some years ago.) Kumar also neglects to mention that the piece was savaged by many in the media, including within the New York Times itself—Public Editor Clark Hoyt essentially apologized for the piece’s irresponsible assertions.

Viewing the Obama administration’s surge strategy in Afghanistan through the darkest possible lens, Kumar writes, “One might speculate that a White House eager to prime public opinion for a troop surge of thirty thousand may have even encouraged a pliant media to devote attention to ‘homegrown terrorism.’” Indeed Kumar is left merely to speculate, in the absence of any proof of such a scheme. The idea that the Obama administration so trafficked in Islamophobia is somewhat outlandish given the criticism administration officials faced for refusing to specifically cite the Islamic faith as a cause of terrorism (memorably illustrated by Rep. Lamar Smith’s badgering of Attorney General Eric Holder in May 2010).

The problem with defining Islamophobia as broadly as Kumar does is that it threatens to divest the term of meaning. It is possible to condemn terrorism committed by Muslims in the name of religion, or to have serious concerns over the development of pluralistic democracy under Islamist-controlled governments, without being anti-Islam. What defines Islamophobia is the belief that terrorist violence is somehow inherent to Islam, or that democracy is incompatible with correct Islamic practice. In uncovering Islamophobia here, there, and everywhere, Kumar unfortunately gives form to the straw man arguments of actual Islamophobes, who often cry that they are being silenced for voicing any criticism of Muslims.

It’s quite true that American political discourse continues to be shot through with ignorance of and hostility toward Islam, but it isn’t the full picture. Take, for example, the recent controversy overNewsweek’s “Muslim Rage” cover story. The cover line and accompanying essay by controversial Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali generated more discussion about the magazine’s Muslim baiting than about “Muslim rage” itself.

While her promulgation of “liberal Islamophobia” is overwrought, Kumar valuably catalogues many of the ways in which American Muslims have been negatively affected by the “war on terror” discourse. She also takes aim at an important problem, if only in glancing: the failure of progressives to press the Obama administration on its civil liberties violations. Rather than locating the cause in deep-seated Islamophobia, however, we’d be just as likely to find it in political expediency.

Even with its flaws though, this remains a valuable book. While Kumar’s framework doesn’t adequately capture the various levels and angles of U.S. engagement with the Middle East as a region, or with Islam as a faith, it does offer an important survey of the mistaken assumptions that continue to power some seriously flawed policies. As the U.S. develops better policies to engage with a transforming Middle East, and hopefully confronts the ongoing degradation of rights at home, the issues Kumar raises deserve to be taken seriously.


Matthew Duss is a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, where he focuses on the Middle East and U.S. national security. He is co-author of
Fear, Inc: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America published by the center in 2011. On Twitter: @mattduss.

That Used to Be Us

That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. By Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York. 380 pp.

Taking their title from a speech by President Barack Obama, Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum express worry about the rise of China at the outset of their book. “It makes no sense for China to have better rail systems than us,” Obama said in an address in 2010. “And we just learned that China now has the fastest supercomputer on Earth. That used to be us.” But the authors quickly make it clear that the main source of their concern is their own country, the United States. They wonder not only how America could fall behind in technology, but, worse, why American society is so complacent about it.

“People have sort of gotten used to it,” they explain. But Friedman and Mandelbaum, prolific writers on global policy issues, steadfastly refuse to accept that China will inevitably dominate global affairs in the twenty-first century. “[We need to] become more like ourselves,” they argue. “Our problem is not China. Our problem is us—what we are doing and not doing.” As they see it, four challenges face Americans: adapting to non-polar globalization; moving beyond the IT revolution; achieving fiscal sustainability; and combating climate change. They believe these challenges require a collective response, one that, alas, is not forthcoming in America’s divisive politics.

The authors contend that the key to American success is innovation, rather than mere critical thinking, which has been America’s comparative advantage in science and education in the past. They hail what they term Carlson’s Law, a bow to Curtis Carlson, CEO of SRI International, which serves as an innovation factory for companies and governments alike. In accordance with Carlson’s Law, Americans must assemble not just a good team, but the best team in the world. Such thinking should govern American education, including college entrance tests. Only such shock therapy can keep America on top. “Average is over,” the authors insist.

Friedman and Mandelbaum want Americans to rediscover their values. They decry the behavior of the titans of American finance that helped trigger the economic meltdown of 2008; they quote the chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission describing how a practice of creating, then betting against, certain subprime mortgage-backed securities was being compared to “selling a car with faulty brakes and then buying an insurance policy on the buyer.” They argue that Americans must embrace a discipline of delayed gratification, accept healthy skepticism of American institutions, and collaborate together for positive collective action. “We don’t need to imitate China,” they say. “What we need is not novel or foreign. What we need instead is to understand our own history.”

The Middle East can borrow some of these ideas. After its revolution, Egypt needs a collective culture, shared vision, sustainable advantage within multi-polar globalization, country branding, a radical reshape of its education system, an innovation spirit in the younger generation, and environmental compliance. Egypt must adapt its future society by positioning itself well and using shock therapy and transformational change, albeit without losing too much of its traditional values and identity. Longer term innovative thinking, good governance with healthy skepticism, and collaborative change must be addressed in Egypt as in America. The mindset of “people have sort of gotten used to it” must change.
 

Tarek Selim is professor of economics at the American University in Cairo. He has served as a senior economic advisor for the Egyptian Competition Authority and is a founding member of the Alfred P. Sloan Industry Studies Association at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Egypt, Energy and the Environment: Critical Sustainability Perspectives.

Addresses by President Barack Obama on the Middle East (2009-2012)

Speech on “A New Beginning” by President Barack Obama, Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt (June 4, 2009)

Source: The White House

Thank you very much. Good afternoon. I am honored to be in the timeless city of Cairo, and to be hosted by two remarkable institutions. For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning; and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt’s advancement. And together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress. I’m grateful for your hospitality, and the hospitality of the people of Egypt. And I’m also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: assalaamu alaykum.

We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world—tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate. The relationship between Islam and the West includes centuries of coexistence and cooperation, but also conflict and religious wars. More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations. Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.

Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11, 2001, and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. All this has bred more fear and more mistrust.

So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles—principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

I do so recognizing that change cannot happen overnight. I know there’s been a lot of publicity about this speech, but no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust, nor can I answer in the time that I have this afternoon all the complex questions that brought us to this point. But I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” That is what I will try to do today—to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.

Now part of this conviction is rooted in my own experience. I’m a Christian, but my father came from a Kenyan family that includes generations of Muslims. As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and at the fall of dusk. As a young man, I worked in Chicago communities where many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith.

As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam—at places like Al-Azhar—that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities—it was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.

I also know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President, John Adams, wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.” And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, they have served in our government, they have stood for civil rights, they have started businesses, they have taught at our universities, they’ve excelled in our sports arenas, they’ve won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers—Thomas Jefferson—kept in his personal library.

So I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.

But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words—within our borders, and around the world. We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum— “Out of many, one.”

Now, much has been made of the fact that an African American with the name Barack Hussein Obama could be elected President. But my personal story is not so unique. The dream of opportunity for all people has not come true for everyone in America, but its promise exists for all who come to our shores—and that includes nearly seven million American Muslims in our country today who, by the way, enjoy incomes and educational levels that are higher than the American average.

Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion. That is why there is a mosque in every state in our union, and over 1,200 mosques within our borders. That’s why the United States government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it.

So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America. And I believe that America holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations—to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities, and our God. These things we share. This is the hope of all humanity.

Of course, recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task. Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.

For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the twenty-first century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace. For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes—and, yes, religions—subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.

Now, that does not mean we should ignore sources of tension. Indeed, it suggests the opposite: we must face these tensions squarely. And so in that spirit, let me speak as clearly and as plainly as I can about some specific issues that I believe we must finally confront together.

The first issue that we have to confront is violent extremism in all of its forms. In Ankara, I made clear that America is not—and never will be—at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security—because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children. And it is my first duty as President to protect the American people.

The situation in Afghanistan demonstrates America’s goals, and our need to work together. Over seven years ago, the United States pursued Al-Qaeda and the Taliban with broad international support. We did not go by choice; we went because of necessity. I’m aware that there’s still some who would question or even justify the events of 9/11. But let us be clear: Al-Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. The victims were innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody. And yet Al-Qaeda chose to ruthlessly murder these people, claimed credit for the attack, and even now states their determination to kill on a massive scale. They have affiliates in many countries and are trying to expand their reach. These are not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with.

Now, make no mistake: we do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We see no military—we seek no military bases there. It is agonizing for America to lose our young men and women. It is costly and politically difficult to continue this conflict. We would gladly bring every single one of our troops home if we could be confident that there were not violent extremists in Afghanistan and now Pakistan determined to kill as many Americans as they possibly can. But that is not yet the case.

And that’s why we’re partnering with a coalition of forty-six countries. And despite the costs involved, America’s commitment will not weaken. Indeed, none of us should tolerate these extremists. They have killed in many countries. They have killed people of different faiths—but more than any other, they have killed Muslims. Their actions are irreconcilable with the rights of human beings, the progress of nations, and with Islam. The Holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent is as—it is as if he has killed all mankind. And the Holy Koran also says whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind. The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few. Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism—it is an important part of promoting peace.

Now, we also know that military power alone is not going to solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s why we plan to invest $1.5 billion each year over the next five years to partner with Pakistanis to build schools and hospitals, roads and businesses, and hundreds of millions to help those who’ve been displaced. That’s why we are providing more than $2.8 billion to help Afghans develop their economy and deliver services that people depend on.

Let me also address the issue of Iraq. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible. Indeed, we can recall the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said: “I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

Today, America has a dual responsibility: to help Iraq forge a better future—and to leave Iraq to Iraqis. And I have made it clear to the Iraqi people—I have made it clear to the Iraqi people that we pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources. Iraq’s sovereignty is its own. And that’s why I ordered the removal of our combat brigades by next August. That is why we will honor our agreement with Iraq’s democratically elected government to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by July, and to remove all of our troops from Iraq by 2012. We will help Iraq train its security forces and develop its economy. But we will support a secure and united Iraq as a partner, and never as a patron.

And finally, just as America can never tolerate violence by extremists, we must never alter or forget our principles. Nine-eleven was an enormous trauma to our country. The fear and anger that it provoked was understandable, but in some cases, it led us to act contrary to our traditions and our ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course. I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.

So America will defend itself, respectful of the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law. And we will do so in partnership with Muslim communities which are also threatened. The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer.

The second major source of tension that we need to discuss is the situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world.

America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed—more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction—or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews—is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

For decades then, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It’s easy to point fingers—for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought about by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

That is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest. And that is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience and dedication that the task requires. The obligations—the obligations that the parties have agreed to under the road map are clear. For peace to come, it is time for them—and all of us—to live up to our responsibilities.

Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That’s not how moral authority is claimed; that’s how it is surrendered.

Now is the time for Palestinians to focus on what they can build. The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have to recognize they have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel’s right to exist.

At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.

And Israel must also live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society. Just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel’s security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be a critical part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress.

And finally, the Arab states must recognize that the Arab Peace Initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities. The Arab-Israeli conflict should no longer be used to distract the people of Arab nations from other problems. Instead, it must be a cause for action to help the Palestinian people develop the institutions that will sustain their state, to recognize Israel’s legitimacy, and to choose progress over a self-defeating focus on the past.

America will align our policies with those who pursue peace, and we will say in public what we say in private to Israelis and Palestinians and Arabs. We cannot impose peace. But privately, many Muslims recognize that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.

Too many tears have been shed. Too much blood has been shed. All of us have a responsibility to work for the dawhen the mothers of Israelis and Palestinians can see their children grow up without fear; when the Holy Land of the three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be; when Jerusalem is a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, and a place for all of the children of Abraham to mingle peacefully together as in the story of Isra—as in the story of Isra, when Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, peace be upon them, joined in prayer.

The third source of tension is our shared interest in the rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons. This issue has been a source of tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is in fact a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I’ve made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question now is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.

I recognize it will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude, and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect. But it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America’s interests. It’s about preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path.

I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nation holds nuclear weapons. And that’s why I strongly reaffirmed America’s commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. And any nation—including Iran—should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That commitment is at the core of the treaty, and it must be kept for all who fully abide by it. And I’m hopeful that all countries in the region can share in this goal.

The fourth issue that I will address is democracy. I know—I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.

Now, there is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments—provided they govern with respect for all their people.

This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they’re out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

The fifth issue that we must address together is religious freedom. Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition. I saw it firsthand as a child in Indonesia, where devout Christians worshiped freely in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. That is the spirit we need today. People in every country should be free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul. This tolerance is essential for religion to thrive, but it’s being challenged in many different ways.

Among some Muslims, there’s a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of somebody else’s faith. The richness of religious diversity must be upheld—whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. And if we are being honest, fault lines must be closed among Muslims, as well, as the divisions between Sunni and Shia have led to tragic violence, particularly in Iraq.

Freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. We must always examine the ways in which we protect it. For instance, in the United States, rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation. That’s why I’m committed to working with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat.

Likewise, it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit—for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear. We can’t disguise hostility towards any religion behind the pretense of liberalism.

In fact, faith should bring us together. And that’s why we’re forging service projects in America to bring together Christians, Muslims, and Jews. That’s why we welcome efforts like Saudi Arabian King Abdullah’s interfaith dialogue and Turkey’s leadership in the Alliance of Civilizations. Around the world, we can turn dialogue into interfaith service, so bridges between peoples lead to action—whether it is combating malaria in Africa, or providing relief after a natural disaster.

The sixth issue that I want to address is women’s rights. I know and you can tell from this audience, that there is a healthy debate about this issue. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well educated are far more likely to be prosperous.

Now, let me be clear: issues of women’s equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, we’ve seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead. Meanwhile, the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.

I am convinced that our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons. Our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity—men and women—to reach their full potential. I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice. And that is why the United States will partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls, and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that helps people live their dreams.

Finally, I want to discuss economic development and opportunity. I know that for many, the face of globalization is contradictory. The Internet and television can bring knowledge and information, but also offensive sexuality and mindless violence into the home. Trade can bring new wealth and opportunities, but also huge disruptions and change in communities. In all nations—including America—this change can bring fear. Fear that because of modernity we lose control over our economic choices, our politics, and most importantly our identities—those things we most cherish about our communities, our families, our traditions, and our faith.

But I also know that human progress cannot be denied. There need not be contradictions between development and tradition. Countries like Japan and South Korea grew their economies enormously while maintaining distinct cultures. The same is true for the astonishing progress within Muslim-majority countries from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai. In ancient times and in our times, Muslim communities have been at the forefront of innovation and education.

And this is important because no development strategy can be based only upon what comes out of the ground, nor can it be sustained while young people are out of work. Many Gulf states have enjoyed great wealth as a consequence of oil, and some are beginning to focus it on broader development. But all of us must recognize that education and innovation will be the currency of the twenty-first century—and in too many Muslim communities, there remains underinvestment in these areas. I’m emphasizing such investment within my own country. And while America in the past has focused on oil and gas when it comes to this part of the world, we now seek a broader engagement.

On education, we will expand exchange programs, and increase scholarships, like the one that brought my father to America. At the same time, we will encourage more Americans to study in Muslim communities. And we will match promising Muslim students with internships in America; invest in online learning for teachers and children around the world; and create a new online network, so a young person in Kansas can communicate instantly with a young person in Cairo.

On economic development, we will create a new corps of business volunteers to partner with counterparts in Muslim-majority countries. And I will host a Summit on Entrepreneurship this year to identify how we can deepen ties between business leaders, foundations and social entrepreneurs in the United States and Muslim communities around the world.

On science and technology, we will launch a new fund to support technological development in Muslim-majority countries, and to help transfer ideas to the marketplace so they can create more jobs. We’ll open centers of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and appoint new science envoys to collaborate on programs that develop new sources of energy, create green jobs, digitize records, clean water, grow new crops. Today I’m announcing a new global effort with the Organization of the Islamic Conference to eradicate polio. And we will also expand partnerships with Muslim communities to promote child and maternal health.

All these things must be done in partnership. Americans are ready to join with citizens and governments; community organizations, religious leaders, and businesses in Muslim communities around the world to help our people pursue a better life.

The issues that I have described will not be easy to address. But we have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world that we seek—a world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes; a world where governments serve their citizens, and the rights of all God’s children are respected. Those are mutual interests. That is the world we seek. But we can only achieve it together.

I know there are many—Muslim and non-Muslim—who question whether we can forge this new beginning. Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress. Some suggest that it isn’t worth the effort—that we are fated to disagree, and civilizations are doomed to clash. Many more are simply skeptical that real change can occur. There’s so much fear, so much mistrust that has built up over the years. But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward. And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country—you, more than anyone, have the ability to reimagine the world, to remake this world.

All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort—a sustained effort—to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.

It’s easier to start wars than to end them. It’s easier to blame others than to look inward. It’s easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share. But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path. There’s one rule that lies at the heart of every religion—that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. This truth transcends nations and peoples—a belief that isn’t new; that isn’t black or white or brown; that isn’t Christian or Muslim or Jew. It’s a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions around the world. It’s a faith in other people, and it’s what brought me here today.

We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written. The Holy Koran tells us: “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.” The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.” The Holy Bible tells us: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

The people of the world can live together in peace. We know that is God’s vision. Now that must be our work here on Earth.

Thank you. And may God’s peace be upon you. Thank you very much. Thank you.

Remarks by President Barack Obama on U.S. Policy in the Middle East and North Africa, State Department, Washington, DC (May 19, 2011)

Source: The White House

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Please, have a seat. Thank you very much. I want to begin by thanking Hillary Clinton, who has traveled so much these last six months that she is approaching a new landmark—one million frequent flyer miles. I count on Hillary every single day, and I believe that she will go down as one of the finest Secretaries of State in our nation’s history.

The State Department is a fitting venue to mark a new chapter in American diplomacy. For six months, we have witnessed an extraordinary change taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. Square by square, town by town, country by country, the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights. Two leaders have stepped aside. More may follow. And though these countries may be a great distance from our shores, we know that our own future is bound to this region by the forces of economics and security, by history and by faith.

Today, I want to talk about this change—the forces that are driving it and how we can respond in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security.

Now, already, we’ve done much to shift our foreign policy following a decade defined by two costly conflicts. After years of war in Iraq, we’ve removed 100,000 American troops and ended our combat mission there. In Afghanistan, we’ve broken the Taliban’s momentum, and this July we will begin to bring our troops home and continue a transition to Afghan lead. And after years of war against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, we have dealt Al-Qaeda a huge blow by killing its leader, Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden was no martyr. He was a mass murderer who offered a message of hate—an insistence that Muslims had to take up arms against the West, and that violence against men, women and children was the only path to change. He rejected democracy and individual rights for Muslims in favor of violent extremism; his agenda focused on what he could destroy—not what he could build.

Bin Laden and his murderous vision won some adherents. But even before his death, Al-Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life. By the time we found bin Laden, Al-Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands.

That story of self-determination began six months ago in Tunisia. On December 17th, a young vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi was devastated when a police officer confiscated his cart. This was not unique. It’s the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world—the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity. Only this time, something different happened. After local officials refused to hear his complaints, this young man, who had never been particularly active in politics, went to the headquarters of the provincial government, doused himself in fuel, and lit himself on fire.

There are times in the course of history when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has been building up for years. In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat. So it was in Tunisia, as that vendor’s act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, then thousands. And in the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home—day after day, week after week—until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power.

The story of this revolution, and the ones that followed, should not have come as a surprise. The nations of the Middle East and North Africa won their independence long ago, but in too many places their people did not. In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of a few. In too many countries, a citizen like that young vendor had nowhere to turn—no honest judiciary to hear his case; no independent media to give him voice; no credible political party to represent his views; no free and fair election where he could choose his leader.

And this lack of self-determination—the chance to make your life what you will—has applied to the region’s economy as well. Yes, some nations are blessed with wealth in oil and gas, and that has led to pockets of prosperity. But in a global economy based on knowledge, based on innovation, no development strategy can be based solely upon what comes out of the ground. Nor can people reach their potential when you cannot start a business without paying a bribe.

In the face of these challenges, too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere. The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half-century after the end of colonialism. Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression. Divisions of tribe, ethnicity and religious sect were manipulated as a means of holding on to power, or taking it away from somebody else.

But the events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and strategies of diversion will not work anymore. Satellite television and the Internet provide a window into the wider world—a world of astonishing progress in places like India and Indonesia and Brazil. Cell phones and social networks allow young people to connect and organize like never before. And so a new generation has emerged. And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied.

In Cairo, we heard the voice of the young mother who said, “It’s like I can finally breathe fresh air for the first time.” In Sanaa, we heard the students who chanted, “The night must come to an end.” In Benghazi, we heard the engineer who said, “Our words are free now. It’s a feeling you can’t explain.” In Damascus, we heard the young man who said, “After the first yelling, the first shout, you feel dignity.”

Those shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region. And through the moral force of nonviolence, the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades. Of course, change of this magnitude does not come easily. In our day and age—a time of twenty-four-hour news cycles and constant communication—people expect the transformation of the region to be resolved in a matter of weeks. But it will be years before this story reaches its end. Along the way, there will be good days and there will bad days. In some places, change will be swift; in others, gradual. And as we’ve already seen, calls for change may give way, in some cases, to fierce contests for power.

The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds. For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.

We will continue to do these things, with the firm belief that America’s interests are not hostile to people’s hopes; they’re essential to them. We believe that no one benefits from a nuclear arms race in the region, or Al-Qaeda’s brutal attacks. We believe people everywhere would see their economies crippled by a cut-off in energy supplies. As we did in the Gulf War, we will not tolerate aggression across borders, and we will keep our commitments to friends and partners.

Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind. Moreover, failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense. Given that this mistrust runs both ways—as Americans have been seared by hostage-taking and violent rhetoric and terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of our citizens—a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world.

And that’s why, two years ago in Cairo, I began to broaden our engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. I believed then—and I believe now—that we have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self-determination of individuals. The status quo is not sustainable. Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder.

So we face a historic opportunity. We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator. There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity. Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise. But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.

Of course, as we do, we must proceed with a sense of humility. It’s not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo—it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and it’s the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome.

Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short-term interests don’t align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region. But we can, and we will, speak out for a set of core principles—principles that have guided our response to the events over the past six months:
The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region.

The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders—whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.

And we support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.

Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest. Today I want to make it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.

Let me be specific. First, it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy. That effort begins in Egypt and Tunisia, where the stakes are high—as Tunisia was at the vanguard of this democratic wave, and Egypt is both a longstanding partner and the Arab world’s largest nation. Both nations can set a strong example through free and fair elections, a vibrant civil society, accountable and effective democratic institutions, and responsible regional leadership. But our support must also extend to nations where transitions have yet to take place.

Unfortunately, in too many countries, calls for change have thus far been answered by violence. The most extreme example is Libya, where Muammar Gadhafi launched a war against his own people, promising to hunt them down like rats. As I said when the United States joined an international coalition to intervene, we cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people, and we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to try to impose regime change by force—no matter how well-intentioned it may be.

But in Libya, we saw the prospect of imminent massacre, we had a mandate for action, and heard the Libyan people’s call for help. Had we not acted along with our NATO allies and regional coalition partners, thousands would have been killed. The message would have been clear: Keep power by killing as many people as it takes. Now, time is working against Gadhafi. He does not have control over his country. The opposition has organized a legitimate and credible Interim Council. And when Gadhafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power, decades of provocation will come to an end, and the transition to a democratic Libya can proceed.

While Libya has faced violence on the greatest scale, it’s not the only place where leaders have turned to repression to remain in power. Most recently, the Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens. The United States has condemned these actions, and working with the international community we have stepped up our sanctions on the Syrian regime—including sanctions announced yesterday on President Assad and those around him.

The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way. The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests. It must release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests. It must allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Daraa; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition. Otherwise, President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and will continue to be isolated abroad.

So far, Syria has followed its Iranian ally, seeking assistance from Tehran in the tactics of suppression. And this speaks to the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime, which says it stand for the rights of protesters abroad, yet represses its own people at home. Let’s remember that the first peaceful protests in the region were in the streets of Tehran, where the government brutalized women and men, and threw innocent people into jail. We still hear the chants echo from the rooftops of Tehran. The image of a young woman dying in the streets is still seared in our memory. And we will continue to insist that the Iranian people deserve their universal rights, and a government that does not smother their aspirations.

Now, our opposition to Iran’s intolerance and Iran’s repressive measures, as well as its illicit nuclear program and its support of terror, is well known. But if America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that at times our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for consistent change—with change that’s consistent with the principles that I’ve outlined today. That’s true in Yemen, where President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power. And that’s true today in Bahrain.

Bahrain is a longstanding partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law.

Nevertheless, we have insisted both publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and we will—and such steps will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail. The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.

Indeed, one of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict. In Iraq, we see the promise of a multiethnic, multi-sectarian democracy. The Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence in favor of a democratic process, even as they’ve taken full responsibility for their own security. Of course, like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress. And as they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.

So in the months ahead, America must use all our influence to encourage reform in the region. Even as we acknowledge that each country is different, we need to speak honestly about the principles that we believe in, with friend and foe alike. Our message is simple: if you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States.

We must also build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future—particularly young people. We will continue to make good on the commitments that I made in Cairo—to build networks of entrepreneurs and expand exchanges in education, to foster cooperation in science and technology, and combat disease. Across the region, we intend to provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned, and who speak uncomfortable truths. And we will use the technology to connect with—and listen to—the voices of the people.

For the fact is, real reform does not come at the ballot box alone. Through our efforts we must support those basic rights to speak your mind and access information. We will support open access to the Internet, and the right of journalists to be heard—whether it’s a big news organization or a lone blogger. In the twenty-first century, information is power, the truth cannot be hidden, and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens.

Such open discourse is important even if what is said does not square with our worldview. Let me be clear, America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard, even if we disagree with them. And sometimes we profoundly disagree with them.

We look forward to working with all who embrace genuine and inclusive democracy. What we will oppose is an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others, and to hold power through coercion and not consent. Because democracy depends not only on elections, but also strong and accountable institutions, and the respect for the rights of minorities.

Such tolerance is particularly important when it comes to religion. In Tahrir Square, we heard Egyptians from all walks of life chant, “Muslims, Christians, we are one.” America will work to see that this spirit prevails—that all faiths are respected, and that bridges are built among them. In a region that was the birthplace of three world religions, intolerance can lead only to suffering and stagnation. And for this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.

What is true for religious minorities is also true when it comes to the rights of women. History shows that countries are more prosperous and more peaceful when women are empowered. And that’s why we will continue to insist that universal rights apply to women as well as men—by focusing assistance on child and maternal health; by helping women to teach, or start a business; by standing up for the right of women to have their voices heard, and to run for office. The region will never reach its full potential when more than half of its population is prevented from achieving their full potential.

Now, even as we promote political reform, even as we promote human rights in the region, our efforts can’t stop there. So the second way that we must support positive change in the region is through our efforts to advance economic development for nations that are transitioning to democracy.

After all, politics alone has not put protesters into the streets. The tipping point for so many people is the more constant concern of putting food on the table and providing for a family. Too many people in the region wake up with few expectations other than making it through the day, perhaps hoping that their luck will change. Throughout the region, many young people have a solid education, but closed economies leave them unable to find a job. Entrepreneurs are brimming with ideas, but corruption leaves them unable to profit from those ideas.

The greatest untapped resource in the Middle East and North Africa is the talent of its people. In the recent protests, we see that talent on display, as people harness technology to move the world. It’s no coincidence that one of the leaders of Tahrir Square was an executive for Google. That energy now needs to be channeled, in country after country, so that economic growth can solidify the accomplishments of the street. For just as democratic revolutions can be triggered by a lack of individual opportunity, successful democratic transitions depend upon an expansion of growth and broad-based prosperity.

So, drawing from what we’ve learned around the world, we think it’s important to focus on trade, not just aid; on investment, not just assistance. The goal must be a model in which protectionism gives way to openness, the reigns of commerce pass from the few to the many, and the economy generates jobs for the young. America’s support for democracy will therefore be based on ensuring financial stability, promoting reform, and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy. And we’re going to start with Tunisia and Egypt.

First, we’ve asked the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to present a plan at next week’s G8 summit for what needs to be done to stabilize and modernize the economies of Tunisia and Egypt. Together, we must help them recover from the disruptions of their democratic upheaval, and support the governments that will be elected later this year. And we are urging other countries to help Egypt and Tunisia meet its near-term financial needs.

Second, we do not want a democratic Egypt to be saddled by the debts of its past. So we will relieve a democratic Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt, and work with our Egyptian partners to invest these resources to foster growth and entrepreneurship. We will help Egypt regain access to markets by guaranteeing $1 billion in borrowing that is needed to finance infrastructure and job creation. And we will help newly democratic governments recover assets that were stolen.

Third, we’re working with Congress to create Enterprise Funds to invest in Tunisia and Egypt. And these will be modeled on funds that supported the transitions in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. OPIC [Overseas Private Investment Corporation] will soon launch a $2 billion facility to support private investment across the region. And we will work with the allies to refocus the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development so that it provides the same support for democratic transitions and economic modernization in the Middle East and North Africa as it has in Europe.

Fourth, the United States will launch a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa. If you take out oil exports, this entire region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland. So we will work with the EU to facilitate more trade within the region, build on existing agreements to promote integration with U.S. and European markets, and open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement. And just as EU membership served as an incentive for reform in Europe, so should the vision of a modern and prosperous economy create a powerful force for reform in the Middle East and North Africa.

Prosperity also requires tearing down walls that stand in the way of progress—the corruption of elites who steal from their people; the red tape that stops an idea from becoming a business; the patronage that distributes wealth based on tribe or sect. We will help governments meet international obligations, and invest efforts at anti-corruption—by working with parliamentarians who are developing reforms, and activists who use technology to increase transparency and hold government accountable. Politics and human rights; economic reform.

Let me conclude by talking about another cornerstone of our approach to the region, and that relates to the pursuit of peace. For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region. For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could be blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own. Moreover, this conflict has come with a larger cost to the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security and prosperity and empowerment to ordinary people.

For over two years, my administration has worked with the parties and the international community to end this conflict, building on decades of work by previous administrations. Yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks. The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on and on and on, and sees nothing but stalemate. Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward now.

I disagree. At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever. That’s certainly true for the two parties involved.

For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.

As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums. But precisely because of our friendship, it’s important that we tell the truth: The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.

The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself. A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people—not just one or two leaders—must believe peace is possible. The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.

Now, ultimately, it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them—not by the United States; not by anybody else. But endless delay won’t make the problem go away. What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows—a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.

So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.

As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself—by itself—against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.

These principles provide a foundation for negotiations. Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Now, let me say this: recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table. In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel: how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.

I recognize how hard this will be. Suspicion and hostility has been passed on for generations, and at times it has hardened. But I’m convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past. We see that spirit in the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas, who helped start an organization that brought together Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones. That father said, “I gradually realized that the only hope for progress was to recognize the face of the conflict.” We see it in the actions of a Palestinian who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza. “I have the right to feel angry,” he said. “So many people were expecting me to hate. My answer to them is I shall not hate. Let us hope,” he said, “for tomorrow.”

That is the choice that must be made—not simply in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but across the entire region—a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past and the promise of the future. It’s a choice that must be made by leaders and by the people, and it’s a choice that will define the future of a region that served as the cradle of civilization and a crucible of strife.

For all the challenges that lie ahead, we see many reasons to be hopeful. In Egypt, we see it in the efforts of young people who led protests. In Syria, we see it in the courage of those who brave bullets while chanting, “peaceful, peaceful.” In Benghazi, a city threatened with destruction, we see it in the courthouse square where people gather to celebrate the freedoms that they had never known. Across the region, those rights that we take for granted are being claimed with joy by those who are prying lose the grip of an iron fist.

For the American people, the scenes of upheaval in the region may be unsettling, but the forces driving it are not unfamiliar. Our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire. Our people fought a painful Civil War that extended freedom and dignity to those who were enslaved. And I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of nonviolence as a way to perfect our union—organizing, marching, protesting peacefully together to make real those words that declared our nation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Those words must guide our response to the change that is transforming the Middle East and North Africa—words which tell us that repression will fail, and that tyrants will fall, and that every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable rights.

It will not be easy. There’s no straight line to progress, and hardship always accompanies a season of hope. But the United States of America was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves. And now we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.

Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.

Remarks by President Barack Obama, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference, Washington, DC (March 4, 2012)

Source: The White House

Thank you. Well, good morning, everyone.

Rosy [AIPAC President Lee Rosenberg], thank you for your kind words. I have never seen Rosy on the basketball court. I’ll bet it would be a treat. Rosy, you’ve been a dear friend of mine for a long time and a tireless advocate for the unbreakable bonds between Israel and the United States. And as you complete your term as president, I salute your leadership and your commitment.

I want to thank the board of directors. As always, I’m glad to see my longtime friends in the Chicago delegation. I also want to thank the members of Congress who are with us here today, and who will be speaking to you over the next few days. You’ve worked hard to maintain the partnership between the United States and Israel. And I especially want to thank my close friend and leader of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

I’m glad that my outstanding young ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, is in the house. I understand that Dan is perfecting his Hebrew on his new assignment, and I appreciate his constant outreach to the Israeli people. And I’m also pleased that we’re joined by so many Israeli officials, including Ambassador Michael Oren. And tomorrow, I’m very much looking forward to welcoming Prime Minister Netanyahu and his delegation back to the White House.

Every time I come to AIPAC, I’m especially impressed to see so many young people here. You don’t yet get the front seats—I understand. You have to earn that. But students from all over the country who are making their voices heard and engaging deeply in our democratic debate. You carry with you an extraordinary legacy of more than six decades of friendship between the United States and Israel. And you have the opportunity—and the responsibility—to make your own mark on the world. And for inspiration, you can look to the man who preceded me on this stage, who’s being honored at this conference—my friend, President Shimon Peres.

Shimon was born a world away from here, in a shtetl in what was then Poland, a few years after the end of the first world war. But his heart was always in Israel, the historic homeland of the Jewish people. And when he was just a boy he made his journey across land and sea—toward home.

In his life, he has fought for Israel’s independence, and he has fought for peace and security. As a member of the Haganah and a member of the Knesset, as a minister of defense and foreign affairs, as a prime minister and as president, Shimon helped build the nation that thrives today: the Jewish state of Israel. But beyond these extraordinary achievements, he has also been a powerful moral voice that reminds us that right makes might—not the other way around.

Shimon once described the story of the Jewish people by saying it proved that, “slings, arrows and gas chambers can annihilate man, but cannot destroy human values, dignity, and freedom.” And he has lived those values. He has taught us to ask more of ourselves and to empathize more with our fellow human beings. I am grateful for his life’s work and his moral example. And I’m proud to announce that later this spring, I will invite Shimon Peres to the White House to present him with America’s highest civilian honor—the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In many ways, this award is a symbol of the broader ties that bind our nations. The United States and Israel share interests, but we also share those human values that Shimon spoke about: a commitment to human dignity. A belief that freedom is a right that is given to all of God’s children. An experience that shows us that democracy is the one and only form of government that can truly respond to the aspirations of citizens.

America’s Founding Fathers understood this truth, just as Israel’s founding generation did. President Truman put it well, describing his decision to formally recognize Israel only minutes after it declared independence. He said, “I had faith in Israel before it was established. I believe it has a glorious future before it—as not just another sovereign nation, but as an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization.”

For over six decades, the American people have kept that faith. Yes, we are bound to Israel because of the interests that we share—in security for our communities, prosperity for our people, the new frontiers of science that can light the world. But ultimately it is our common ideals that provide the true foundation for our relationship. That is why America’s commitment to Israel has endured under Democratic and Republican presidents, and congressional leaders of both parties. In the United States, our support for Israel is bipartisan, and that is how it should stay.

AIPAC’s work continually nurtures this bond. And because of AIPAC’s effectiveness in carrying out its mission, you can expect that over the next several days, you will hear many fine words from elected officials describing their commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship. But as you examine my commitment, you don’t just have to count on my words. You can look at my deeds. Because over the last three years, as president of the United States, I have kept my commitments to the state of Israel. At every crucial juncture—at every fork in the road—we have been there for Israel. Every single time.

Four years ago, I stood before you and said that, “Israel’s security is sacrosanct. It is non-negotiable.” That belief has guided my actions as president. The fact is my administration’s commitment to Israel’s security has been unprecedented. Our military and intelligence cooperation has never been closer. Our joint exercises and training have never been more robust. Despite a tough budget environment, our security assistance has increased every single year. We are investing in new capabilities. We’re providing Israel with more advanced technology—the types of products and systems that only go to our closest friends and allies. And make no mistake: We will do what it takes to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge—because Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.

This isn’t just about numbers on a balance sheet. As a senator, I spoke to Israeli troops on the Lebanese border. I visited with families who’ve known the terror of rocket fire in Sderot. And that’s why, as president, I have provided critical funding to deploy the Iron Dome system that has intercepted rockets that might have hit homes and hospitals and schools in that town and in others. Now our assistance is expanding Israel’s defensive capabilities, so that more Israelis can live free from the fear of rockets and ballistic missiles. Because no family, no citizen, should live in fear.

And just as we’ve been there with our security assistance, we’ve been there through our diplomacy. When the Goldstone report unfairly singled out Israel for criticism, we challenged it. When Israel was isolated in the aftermath of the flotilla incident, we supported them. When the Durban conference was commemorated, we boycotted it, and we will always reject the notion that Zionism is racism.

When one-sided resolutions are brought up at the Human Rights Council, we oppose them. When Israeli diplomats feared for their lives in Cairo, we intervened to save them. When there are efforts to boycott or divest from Israel, we will stand against them. And whenever an effort is made to delegitimize the state of Israel, my administration has opposed them. So there should not be a shred of doubt by now—when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.

Which is why, if during this political season you hear some questions regarding my administration’s support for Israel, remember that it’s not backed up by the facts. And remember that the U.S.-Israel relationship is simply too important to be distorted by partisan politics. America’s national security is too important. Israel’s security is too important.

Of course, there are those who question not my security and diplomatic commitments, but rather my administration’s ongoing pursuit of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. So let me say this: I make no apologies for pursuing peace. Israel’s own leaders understand the necessity of peace. Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak, President Peres—each of them have called for two states, a secure Israel that lives side by side with an independent Palestinian state. I believe that peace is profoundly in Israel’s security interest.

The reality that Israel faces—from shifting demographics, to emerging technologies, to an extremely difficult international environment—demands a resolution of this issue. And I believe that peace with the Palestinians is consistent with Israel’s founding values—because of our shared belief in self-determination, and because Israel’s place as a Jewish and democratic state must be protected.

Of course, peace is hard to achieve. There’s a reason why it’s remained elusive for six decades. The upheaval and uncertainty in Israel’s neighborhood makes it that much harder—from the horrific violence raging in Syria, to the transition in Egypt. And the division within the Palestinian leadership makes it harder still—most notably, with Hamas’s continued rejection of Israel’s very right to exist.

But as hard as it may be, we should not and cannot give in to cynicism or despair. The changes taking place in the region make peace more important, not less. And I’ve made it clear that there will be no lasting peace unless Israel’s security concerns are met. That’s why we continue to press Arab leaders to reach out to Israel, and will continue to support the peace treaty with Egypt. That’s why—just as we encourage Israel to be resolute in the pursuit of peace—we have continued to insist that any Palestinian partner must recognize Israel’s right to exist and reject violence and adhere to existing agreements. And that is why my administration has consistently rejected any efforts to short-cut negotiations or impose an agreement on the parties.

As Rosy noted, last year, I stood before you and pledged that, “the United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the United Nations.” As you know, that pledge has been kept. Last September, I stood before the United Nations General Assembly and reaffirmed that any lasting peace must acknowledge the fundamental legitimacy of Israel and its security concerns. I said that America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable, our friendship with Israel is enduring and that Israel must be recognized. No American president has made such a clear statement about our support for Israel at the United Nations at such a difficult time. People usually give those speeches before audiences like this one—not before the General Assembly.

And I must say, there was not a lot of applause. But it was the right thing to do. And as a result, today there is no doubt—anywhere in the world—that the United States will insist upon Israel’s security and legitimacy. That will be true as we continue our efforts to pursue—in the pursuit of peace. And that will be true when it comes to the issue that is such a focus for all of us today: Iran’s nuclear program—a threat that has the potential to bring together the worst rhetoric about Israel’s destruction with the world’s most dangerous weapons.

Let’s begin with a basic truth that you all understand: no Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel’s destruction. And so I understand the profound historical obligation that weighs on the shoulders of Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak and all of Israel’s leaders.

A nuclear-armed Iran is completely counter to Israel’s security interests. But it is also counter to the national security interests of the United States.

Indeed, the entire world has an interest in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. A nuclear-armed Iran would thoroughly undermine the nonproliferation regime that we’ve done so much to build. There are risks that an Iranian nuclear weapon could fall into the hands of a terrorist organization. It is almost certain that others in the region would feel compelled to get their own nuclear weapon, triggering an arms race in one of the world’s most volatile regions. It would embolden a regime that has brutalized its own people, and it would embolden Iran’s proxies, who have carried out terrorist attacks from the Levant to southwest Asia.

And that is why, four years ago, I made a commitment to the American people and said that we would use all elements of American power to pressure Iran and prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And that is what we have done.

When I took office, the efforts to apply pressure on Iran were in tatters. Iran had gone from zero centrifuges spinning to thousands, without facing broad pushback from the world. In the region, Iran was ascendant—increasingly popular and extending its reach. In other words, the Iranian leadership was united and on the move, and the international community was divided about how to go forward.

And so from my very first months in office, we put forward a very clear choice to the Iranian regime: a path that would allow them to rejoin the community of nations if they meet their international obligations, or a path that leads to an escalating series of consequences if they don’t. In fact, our policy of engagement—quickly rebuffed by the Iranian regime—allowed us to rally the international community as never before, to expose Iran’s intransigence and to apply pressure that goes far beyond anything that the United States could do on our own.

Because of our efforts, Iran is under greater pressure than ever before. Some of you will recall, people predicted that Russia and China wouldn’t join us to move toward pressure. They did. And in 2010 the UN Security Council overwhelmingly supported a comprehensive sanctions effort. Few thought that sanctions could have an immediate bite on the Iranian regime. They have, slowing the Iranian nuclear program and virtually grinding the Iranian economy to a halt in 2011. Many questioned whether we could hold our coalition together as we moved against Iran’s Central Bank and oil exports. But our friends in Europe and Asia and elsewhere are joining us. And in 2012, the Iranian government faces the prospect of even more crippling sanctions.

That is where we are today, because of our work. Iran is isolated, its leadership divided and under pressure. And by the way, the Arab Spring has only increased these trends, as the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime is exposed, and its ally, the Assad regime, is crumbling.

Of course, so long as Iran fails to meet its obligations, this problem remains unresolved. The effective implementation of our policy is not enough—we must accomplish our objective. And in that effort, I firmly believe that an opportunity still remains for diplomacy—backed by pressure—to succeed.

The United States and Israel both assess that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon, and we are exceedingly vigilant in monitoring their program. Now, the international community has a responsibility to use the time and space that exists. Sanctions are continuing to increase, and this July—thanks to our diplomatic coordination—a European ban on Iranian oil imports will take hold. Faced with these increasingly dire consequences, Iran’s leaders still have the opportunity to make the right decision. They can choose a path that brings them back into the community of nations, or they can continue down a dead end.

And given their history, there are, of course, no guarantees that the Iranian regime will make the right choice. But both Israel and the United States have an interest in seeing this challenge resolved diplomatically. After all, the only way to truly solve this problem is for the Iranian government to make a decision to forsake nuclear weapons. That’s what history tells us.

Moreover, as president and commander in chief, I have a deeply held preference for peace over war. I have sent men and women into harm’s way. I’ve seen the consequences of those decisions in the eyes of those I meet who’ve come back gravely wounded, and the absence of those who don’t make it home. Long after I leave this office, I will remember those moments as the most searing of my presidency. And for this reason, as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I will only use force when the time and circumstances demand it. And I know that Israeli leaders also know all too well the costs and consequences of war, even as they recognize their obligation to defend their country.

We all prefer to resolve this issue diplomatically. Having said that, Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States—just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.

I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say. That includes all elements of American power: a political effort aimed at isolating Iran, a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored, an economic effort that imposes crippling sanctions and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.

Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests.

Moving forward, I would ask that we all remember the weightiness of these issues, the stakes involved for Israel, for America, and for the world. Already, there is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program. For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster. Now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in and to sustain the broad international coalition we have built. Now is the time to heed the timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: speak softly; carry a big stick. And as we do, rest assured that the Iranian government will know our resolve and that our coordination with Israel will continue.

These are challenging times. But we’ve been through challenging times before, and the United States and Israel have come through them together. Because of our cooperation, citizens in both our countries have benefited from the bonds that bring us together. I’m proud to be one of those people. In the past, I’ve shared in this forum just why those bonds are so personal for me: the stories of a great uncle who helped liberate Buchenwald, to my memories of returning there with Elie Wiesel; from sharing books with President Peres to sharing seders with my young staff in a tradition that started on the campaign trail and continues in the White House; from the countless friends I know in this room to the concept of tikkun olam that has enriched and guided my life.

As Harry Truman understood, Israel’s story is one of hope. We may not agree on every single issue—no two nations do, and our democracies contain a vibrant diversity of views. But we agree on the big things—the things that matter. And together, we are working to build a better world—one where our people can live free from fear; one where peace is founded upon justice; one where our children can know a future that is more hopeful than the present.

There is no shortage of speeches on the friendship between the United States and Israel. But I’m also mindful of the proverb, “A man is judged by his deeds, not his words.” So if you want to know where my heart lies, look no further than what I have done—to stand up for Israel; to secure both of our countries and to see that the rough waters of our time lead to a peaceful and prosperous shore.

Thank you very much, everybody. God bless you. God bless the people of Israel. God bless the United States of America.

Compiled by Jonathan Guyer

Dealing with Iran

When Barack Obama entered the White House in January 2009, the excitement inside the State Department was palpable. It’s no secret that Washington, DC, is a left-leaning city, and the State Department in particular is a government agency staffed with a cadre of people who use the power of patience, forbearance, listening, and dialogue on a daily basis. Thus, it was no surprise that many State Department officials preferred the more urbane Barack Obama to George W. Bush and the trail of messes that president left for them to clean up around the world. Perhaps no office was more excited than mine. For four years, I served in the Office of Iranian Affairs. We knew America’s status quo Iran policy was not working, and most of us agreed with President Obama that it was time for a new approach.

For the first three months of Obama’s presidency, the White House led an Iran policy review that took stock of previous policies, and deliberated over the best way to pursue the president’s promise for diplomacy. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross and Puneet Talwar, senior director for Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf states at the National Security Council, led a top heavy, closely held effort that incorporated feedback from numerous government agencies and American allies around the world.

At first glance, this approach appeared to be the most prudent way forward. Attempting to learn from past mistakes and creating international buy-in through close consultations are key facets of diplomacy. What many of us did not anticipate, however, was the law of unintended consequences. Looking back, the inclusive nature of the policy review closely resembled the process of marking up bills in Congress. When a representative or senator introduces legislation, their colleagues then have an opportunity to make changes and amendments prior to recommending that the bill becomes law. Marked-up legislation often looks very different from its original iteration. A similar process took hold of Obama’s policy review: America’s partners abroad—including, but not limited to, Israelis, British, French, Germans, Saudis, Russians, and Chinese—each had an opportunity to mark up Obama’s vision on Iran. This political reality reduced U.S. maneuverability and left us with a policy that was eerily similar to what many of us had hoped to leave behind.

Fast forward four years, and the U.S. and Iran stand at the precipice of a military conflict that could engulf the entire Middle East, if not the world. President Obama has repeated several times—including at the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual conference—that time still exists for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vociferously disagrees and makes clear his preference for a military confrontation aimed at destroying Iran’s nuclear program: “The world tells Israel: ‘Wait. There’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’ Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.”1 How did an American president who spoke of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect end up with no good options at his disposal? The devil is in the details.

To better understand how Obama’s Iran policy has played out, it is important to deconstruct the realities and drivers of his strategy, and the political psychology behind each round of negotiations involving the U.S. and Iran. Understanding how we got to where we are will help us figure out how to move beyond the status quo to a more productive and less dangerous relationship with Iran.

Obama’s Strategy

It should now be clear that U.S. policy has never been a true engagement policy. By definition, engagement entails a long-term approach that abandons punitive measures—the “sticks”—and reassures both sides that their respective fears are unfounded. Obama administration officials realized early on that they were unlikely to adopt this approach. Instead, after the conclusion of Obama’s policy review, a “carrot and stick” strategy similar to that of the Bush administration has been pursued. This “dual track”—as it has been referred as since January 2009—utilizes positive and negative inducements to convince Iran that changing its behavior would be its most rewarding and least harmful decision. The key difference between the Bush and Obama approach has been an effort by the latter to avoid the tactical mistakes of the former. By publicly disavowing regime change, striking diplomatic quid pro quos with key allies, and dropping preconditions to diplomacy with Iran, Obama changed tactics, but maintained an objective similar to his predecessor—making Iran yield on the nuclear issue through pressure. By changing tactics, the U.S. has managed to build a more robust consensus for international sanctions—something the Bush administration was unable to achieve.

Yet, as leaked diplomatic cables show, officials at the highest levels of the Obama administration never believed that diplomacy could succeed.2 While this does not cheapen the groundbreaking facets of President Obama’s initial outreach, it has raised three questions that remain unanswered: how can U.S. policymakers give maximum effort to make diplomacy succeed if they never believed their efforts could work? Why has the U.S. expected Iran to accept negotiation terms that relinquish its greatest strategic assets without receiving strategic assets of equal value in return? And why did the Obama administration expect Iran to make serious investments in diplomacy after leaked cables showed it never had? Obama presented a solid vision upon entering office—resolving the U.S.-Iran conflict through diplomacy—but his administration’s pursuit of it has been half-hearted at best.

Newly elected American presidents enter the White House with an unprecedented level of political capital, which steadily shrinks as their reelection bid approaches. Knowing this, why didn’t Obama fully abandon the Bush strategy and create his own? Privately, high-ranking U.S. officials acknowledge they underestimated both the domestic and international political obstacles to normalizing relations with Iran, and the difficulty of understanding Iranian government decision-making and strategic calculus. And yet, despite thirty years of evidence to the contrary, these same officials seem to increasingly believe that recycling previously unsuccessful pressure-based policies will provide negotiating leverage, bring the Iranians to the negotiating table, and perhaps hasten the end of the Iranian regime.

The Obama administration retained the same priorities, policy vehicles, and much of the same senior personnel on Iran largely because it believes that sanctions strengthen the credibility and leverage of those who want to engage Iran, while also preventing more violent actions by Israel. The administration insists that, in the long run, such an approach better addresses the myriad mutual interests shared by the U.S. and Iran.

President Obama himself reached the conclusion that too few negative incentives and pressures existed to affect Iran’s internal calculus, particularly regarding U.S.-Iranian mutual interests. Thus a policy followed that increased the pressure on Iran based on assumptions that it would: bring the Iranians to the negotiating table; affect Iran’s internal calculus; strengthen the credibility and leverage of the pro-engagement camps; and prevent more violent actions from Israel.

Obama has dramatically increased the number and severity of U.S.-led sanctions on Iran, while also reiterating numerous times that “all options are on the table” to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. His comments have been surprisingly direct: “We prefer to solve this issue diplomatically… Having said that, Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States… I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say.”3 Obama’s preference to solve the crisis diplomatically, and his insistence that the time remains to do so, are firmly grounded in a clear, shared assessment by senior diplomatic, military, and intelligence officials in the U.S. and its closest allies. Iran halted work toward nuclear weapons in 2003, and it has since not made the political decision to pursue weaponization.4

Netanyahu publicly contradicts Iranian assessments by the national security establishments in both the U.S. and Israel.5 His push for bombing Iran has been met with stiff resistance by President Obama. This—along with Netanyahu’s refusal to implement a permanent cessation of settlement building on Palestinian land—has cooled relations between the two leaders. The dynamic seems to echo Netanyahu’s contentious relationship with President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Clinton’s memorable depiction leaves little to the imagination: “Who the fuck does he think he is? Who’s the fucking superpower here?”6

With the military option emphasized as a last resort, and diplomacy not having been truly pursued, most of the Obama administration’s efforts to-date have centered on developing, implementing, and enforcing “coordinated national measures”—or “coalition of the willing” sanctions. Senior administration officials believe that U.S. leverage vis-à-vis Iran is at its highest immediately before a new round of sanctions—which in turn provides political space to carry out “engagement-type activities” with Iran in a low-key manner. In practice, however, movement on other “engagement-type” activities has been reactive rather than proactive, so as to avoid impairing the short-term policy of sanction implementation. Privately, Obama administration officials acknowledge this contradiction but offer little in the way of resolving it.

These realities and drivers of Obama’s Iran policy have colored each round of negotiations to date between the Islamic Republic and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1). A closer examination of what happened, and why diplomacy remains a work in progress, sheds light on potential pathways out of the mounting crisis.

Round 1: October 2009

Negotiations between the U.S. and Iran were always going to be fraught with complications. An institutionalized enmity developed over many decades is hard to untangle. The political space and the political will for diplomacy was further limited from the outset by political obstacles, both domestic and international. At the core of the distrust is a shared fear of overthrow: the U.S. believes that Iran seeks to upend the regional security framework that it has built and operated since filling the power vacuum left by Britain’s retreat from the Persian Gulf in the years after World War II. The Islamic Republic believes that the U.S. seeks to overthrow its regime. The U.S. and Iran have come to believe that their interests are incompatible, and to view their relations as a zero-sum game. Such outlooks have been fueled by minimal diplomatic contact, interaction, or communication over the past three decades.

During the successive presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, both sides took turns shunning negotiations when the other was ready to deal. George W. Bush rejected the most promising opening in U.S.-Iran relations when he spurned an offer from Tehran for comprehensive negotiations on all outstanding issues.7

After years of U.S. refusal to enter into multilateral negotiations with Iran over Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration did join its P5+1 colleagues at the negotiating table. In October 2009, Obama’s diplomacy with Iran commenced in Geneva, with all eyes focused on the diplomats from Washington and Tehran. Expectations were low within the Obama administration, but by the end it was a case of defeat actually being snatched from the jaws of victory.

Negotiations that included a private bilateral meeting between the lead American and Iran negotiators produced a surprise outcome: the Islamic Republic agreed in principle to transfer approximately three quarters of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for further enrichment, and then to France for processing into fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). Upon returning from Geneva, Tehran’s top nuclear envoy, Saeed Jalili, asserted that the P5+1—and in particular, the U.S.—had implicitly accepted Iran’s right to enrich uranium on Iranian soil. Remarks from American officials struck a similarly positive tone, calling the talks constructive.

U.S. officials took Iran’s constructive response seriously: they believed that Iranian negotiators could not have proceeded without the official consent of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. From Washington’s view, this was a confidence-building measure that benefited both the U.S. and Iran. The overarching principle for the Obama team was buying time. Already eight months into a self-imposed, one-year time limit for diplomacy to succeed, pressure from Congress and Israel to abandon diplomacy and focus solely on punitive measures was increasing daily. Under the proposed swap, Russia and France would spend a year reprocessing Iran’s LEU into 20 percent enriched uranium and fuel. If the LEU was no longer on Iranian soil, it would undercut those in Congress and in Israel who were calling for the end of diplomacy—their demand being based on Iran’s growing LEU stockpile. President Obama would then have greater political space to both extend the time frame of negotiations and expand their scope.

Decision-makers in Washington also saw tangible benefits for the Islamic Republic: the deal would head off a barrage of new sanctions, and instead begin a longer-term process of negotiations with the goal of resolving the many outstanding differences between Iran and the international community. U.S. officials privately acknowledged that it was not lost upon the Iranians that no discussion took place regarding the numerous UN Security Council resolutions calling for Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment.

With the contours of an agreement in place, the parties returned to their respective capitals for consultations. But in Tehran, the deal was dead on arrival. Rather than reject it outright, Iranian officials pushed for additional guarantees to ensure that the West held up its end of the bargain. Most notably, they sought a simultaneous exchange of LEU for fuel rods with Russia and France—not entirely unreasonable given the lack of trust between the negotiating parties. These fuel rods, Iran said, would power Tehran’s research reactor that produces medical isotopes used to treat cancer patients. Obama administration officials, however, quickly dismissed Iran’s request as foot dragging, and the talks fell apart. Washington’s insistence that the Geneva deal was the only offer on the table turned a confidence-building measure into an ultimatum—and Iranian flexibility into resistance.

Washington officials came away from the Geneva negotiations trying to figure out why Iranian officials—particularly Ayatollah Khamenei—reneged on the deal. But, as the Obama team would later experience first-hand, all politics is local. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s political rivals had in fact unleashed a barrage of resentment that had been growing throughout his first four years in office. A toxic combination of political and social upheaval in Iran ultimately forced Khamenei to withdraw his support of the deal.

Stinging criticism came at Ahmadinejad from across Iran’s political spectrum. Former Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Mohsen Rezaei, two former chief nuclear negotiators—Ali Larijani and Hassan Rowhani—and opposition leader and former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi all spoke out against the deal.8 They criticized Ahmadinejad for agreeing to modalities that required Iran to relinquish strategic assets without receiving strategic assets of equal value in return. Privately, these battle-tested revolutionaries were giving Ahmadinejad a dose of his own medicine—after he’d spent the better part of his first term in office sabotaging their attempts to mend fences with the international community.

Privately, some Obama administration officials concede that the U.S. saw an opportunity and tried to seize it: with Iran still reeling from the “Green Movement”—the unrest and domestic political fratricide that had erupted after Ahmadinejad’s disputed reelection in June 2009—hardliners in Iran were thought to be looking for a de-escalation of foreign tensions in order to focus more on problems at home. Instead, America learned a valuable lesson: pressing Iran’s fractured political system to give a quick “yes” usually results in Iranians saying “no.”

Round 2: May 2010

After talks between Iran and the P5+1 broke down in late 2009, Obama’s political space for diplomacy had closed and his administration used its remaining political capital to win support for increased sanctions at the UN and among a U.S.-led “coalition of the willing.” Iran’s relationship with every one of the P5+1 countries ranged from bad to worse, and a huge reservoir of mistrust, suspicion, and hostility made resolving the nuclear issue a formidable task. Recognizing this, Turkey and Brazil offered to use its cordial relations with Iran and the P5+1 to help inject trust into the diplomatic process. Constrained politically at home, President Obama took the Turks and Brazilians up on their offer, sending them a detailed letter with specific steps that Iran had to agree to—steps that were nearly identical to the 2009 deal that Iran walked away from.9

Skepticism of the Turkish-Brazilian initiative was high within the Obama administration. At one point, in private telephone conversations prior to the Tehran summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a tough message to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva: go to Tehran, see for yourself that the Iranians are not interested in a deal, then get on board with the UN sanctions. Rather than capitalize on Iranian concessions and test the Islamic Republic’s ability to follow through, some U.S. officials viewed the Turkish-Brazilian initiative as part of a larger Iranian diplomatic strategy to divide the international community and give sanctions naysayers something to hang their hat on.

But a funny thing happened in Tehran. After a marathon negotiating session that lasted more than a full day, Erdoğan and Lula got Iran to sign on the dotted line. Iran’s primary objection during the 2009 talks—the drawn-out process of shipping its stockpile of LEU in one batch, the fuel swap taking place in a third-party country, and Iran receiving fuel rods in approximately one year’s time—were all withdrawn. Turkey and Brazil managed to win Iranian agreement to the key terms that Obama had insisted upon less than a year earlier.

What Erdoğan and Lula didn’t know was that President Obama, for his part, had already won Russian and Chinese support for a new round of UN sanctions. While Turkey and Brazil were announcing their successful diplomacy with Iran—securing everything that Obama asked for in his letter—Clinton was telling Congress that the U.S. had secured a new UN Security Council resolution against Iran. Despite having an agreement within reach, Obama could not take “yes” for an answer.

Publicly, the Obama administration claimed that it refused to accept the revised TRR deal because it focused on removing 1,200 kilograms of enriched uranium from Iran. The U.S. now considered this an insufficient amount relative to Iran’s stockpile at the time, which exceeded 2,000 kilograms. The deal no longer addressed realities on the ground, argued senior Obama administration officials, having been “overcome by events.” Privately, senior officials conceded that Congress was coming at the administration like a steamroller on the Iran issue. They explain that making progress on the UN sanctions track was the only way at that point to push back against more counterproductive sanctions that were being demanded in the House and Senate.

Obama’s push for new UN sanctions had begun long before Turkey and Brazil offered to broker a revised version of the TRR deal. Negotiations between the U.S., Russia, and China stretched out for months before the Russians and Chinese extracted sufficient concessions in exchange for their support. Despite their best efforts, Erdoğan and Lula had little chance of securing concessions from Iran that the U.S. would have deemed acceptable.

As with Iran a year earlier in 2009, domestic political realities forced the U.S. to backtrack and prevented its top decision-maker from following through on a deal that he originally encouraged. The sense in the Obama administration was that any nuclear deal with Tehran, short of full Iranian capitulation, could only be sold domestically after a new round of sanctions. Yet, to date, this scenario has not played out in practice. Instead, it has emboldened Iranian hardliners, who have started responding in kind.

Round 3: January 2011

The pattern of sporadic diplomacy continued into 2011, when Iran and the P5+1 agreed to meet in Istanbul after an eight-month hiatus. As Iranian officials prepared to meet their American, British, French, Russian, Chinese, and German counterparts, expectations were understandably low. Yet there was cautious optimism that a new venue in Istanbul—outside of the West, in Iran’s backyard—could produce tangible first steps. Instead, the talks took an unexpected turn for the worse as the Iranian delegation introduced two preconditions—the suspension of sanctions and acceptance of Iran’s right to enrichment—that proved to be non-starters for the P5+1.10

The hardening of Iran’s stance puzzled many U.S. officials who did not fully understand the political psychology behind Iran’s move. Contrary to the expectation that Tehran would be in a position of weakness heading into the talks, its conduct seemed to reveal that it perceived itself to be in a position of strength.

Over the weeks preceding the Istanbul talks, American and European officials made a concerted effort to shape both the narrative and terms of debate. Information divulged by diplomats to analysts and journalists sought to intimidate decision-makers in Tehran by serving as the basis for numerous press stories and analyses that painted a picture of an Islamic Republic besieged by subversion, sanctions, and isolation.11 Government officials across the Atlantic maintained that, while expectations for talks were low, they did not expect anything irregular from their Iranian interlocutors.

Iran responded in-kind by issuing the two preconditions that served as a de facto ultimatum. Tehran was well aware of the unlikelihood of the P5+1 suspending sanctions and acknowledging Iran’s right to enrichment. But the strategic (and high-risk) move of laying down these prerequisites was meant to send a clear message: Iran will not yield to pressure or make tactical compromises, but it will enter strategic negotiations that address the concerns of both sides and define in advance the desired result.

By effectively declaring that it would not negotiate solely over its nuclear program, the Islamic Republic raised the stakes in a delicate and dangerous game of brinksmanship that has embroiled U.S.-Iran relations since 2002. With President Obama’s dual-track strategy reaching a virtual deadlock, the Iranian government calculated that it stood a better chance of getting what it needed by escalating the conflict. Decision-makers in Tehran concluded that reaching a viable, strategic long-term solution required an interim worsening of the problem, so that policymakers in Washington could not ignore it or gloss over it with short-term tactics. The Islamic Republic played a risky game, but not one without strategy and logic.

Iran was—and today, still is—betting that the U.S. national security establishment will not favor another war in the Middle East, that it lacks viable options in its regime change policy, and will therefore eventually change its hostile posture towards Iran.

Sanctions—both UN Security Council measures and American-led “coordinated national measures”—hurt Iran’s economic health writ large, yet decision-makers in Tehran have maintained their refusal to yield through pressure. After both sets of sanctions fell short in changing Iran’s strategic calculus, the Islamic Republic viewed its position as strengthened, and its hardened stance put the ball back in the court of the P5+1.

Iran correctly calculated that Russia (and by extension, China) would not support additional UN Security Council sanctions in the short to medium term. Consequently, the U.S. strategy has focused on expanding “coordinated national measures.” Convincing an already hesitant set of allies with long-standing economic ties to Iran—Japan, South Korea, India, South Africa, and others—to sign onto another round of unilateral sanctions required the Obama administration to strike diplomatic quid pro quos and provide assurances to its allies that it would reinvigorate direct diplomacy with Iran.

Rising instability across the Middle East has increased Tehran’s confidence in its regional strength. Decision-makers in Tehran pushed a public narrative that framed the Arab Spring as Islam/Iran-inspired.12 Privately, they acknowledged a regional dynamic that is far more fluid than their public narrative suggested, but were confidant nonetheless that the Arab Spring worked against a status-quo that had long favored U.S. interests. The Iranian government continues to see increased instability throughout the region—save for Syria, where it has long been allied with the Bashar Al-Assad regime—as a way to deflect international pressure and exploit fissures within the international community. Iran’s hardened stance in Istanbul pointed to a set of decision-makers in Tehran who felt cautiously stronger on the international scene than the U.S.-led narrative of sanctions, cyber warfare, and secret assassinations suggested.

Disconnect in Moscow

Mutual escalation continued unabated, culminating in U.S.-led sanctions on Iranian oil and financial transactions. Altogether this was estimated to cut Iran’s oil export revenues in half, and processing payments became costly and time-consuming.13 Iran responded in kind by creating new facts on the ground with regard to its nuclear program and doubling down on its support for the Al-Assad government in Syria. Together, both the U.S. and Iran were playing an extremely dangerous game based on misperception. Each side seemed to be misreading the strength and resolve of the other. In this kind of game of chicken, small errors of judgment can result in military confrontation. And in game theory, the opponent that seems “irrational” or “crazy” can actually win. This misperception in Washington and Tehran heightened the danger to the degree that both sides recognized the need to let off some steam.

Against this backdrop, Iran and the P5+1 agreed to meet again in Istanbul. According to officials from both sides, mutual escalation sharpened the choices and focus of all parties at the negotiating table. Despite the bar being set very low for the talks, progress was made because all parties compromised: Iran dropped its preconditions for addressing the nuclear issue, and the U.S. agreed to resolve the nuclear issue within the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). By agreeing to a framework for negotiations—the principle of a step-by-step approach based on reciprocity—both sides were able to begin discussions for concrete steps toward a negotiated solution. And a subsequent meeting was scheduled in Baghdad.

Going into their second meeting of 2012, Iran and the P5+1 understood the parameters of what a confidence-building measure based on compromise would look like: Iran would accept limits on its enrichment of uranium in return for a relaxation or postponement of sanctions. Yet knowing what the contours of a deal look like, and having the political will to take the necessary risks for peace, are two very different things.

Both sides used their time in Baghdad to communicate directly and trade proposals. Despite high anticipation leading up to the negotiations, the P5+1’s maximalist position had been known for months: capping Iran’s uranium enrichment at the 5 percent level; shipping to a third-party country Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to higher levels; and scrapping its deeply buried uranium-enrichment facility.

Equally important but less clear was the P5+1 package of incentives that would reciprocate Iranian concessions. Its opening salvo surprised even the most ardent skeptics of the Islamic Republic: stringent demands to curb uranium enrichment but no sanctions relief. Instead, Iran was told the P5+1 would not consider easing sanctions even if Tehran shipped out its stockpile of uranium enriched to the 20 percent level. Unsurprisingly, the Iranian delegation deemed this proposal “outdated, not comprehensive, and unbalanced.”14

As a result, the focus shifted: negotiations became less about the U.S. knowing what Iran was capable of offering and more about Washington driving a hard bargain—or not having the necessary political space to reciprocate Iranian concessions. Based on the step-by-step principles of reciprocity that were agreed to during the prior round of talks in Istanbul, non-U.S. diplomats privately noted that Washington had moved the goalposts in Baghdad and put a diplomatic solution to the crisis at risk.

A disconnect remained between the two sides on what comprehensive, transparent, and practical steps should look like. From Tehran’s vantage point, if it agreed to walk back uranium enrichment, it wanted the West to walk back sanctions. European Union diplomats pointed out—correctly—that Iran was expected to relinquish its greatest strategic asset (its stockpile of enriched uranium) without receiving a strategic asset of equal value in return. Yet, both sides still had an interest in bridging the gap. Failing to do so on any level would force the talks to collapse and likely cause both sides to escalate toward the worst possible outcome. Hence, they agreed to another round of talks in Moscow, despite the gap in their positions.

Both sides entered negotiations with their maximalist positions, and neither budged. But, by returning to the negotiating table, they helped diplomacy become the sustained process it was always supposed to be, rather than mere one-off meetings. As both sides worked to find an agreement that could be sold to their respective domestic political constituencies, they agreed to continue talks at the working level before reconvening at the political level in Moscow.

There, however, things took a turn for the worse. Both sides walked away from the summit trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces after such a dangerous turn of events. To the credit of Washington and Tehran, their public-relations departments did a masterful job spinning just how badly the negotiations in Moscow had gone. Privately, however, officials from both sides conceded that a breakdown in the talks occurred largely because the United States moved the goalposts—again. And an honest assessment indicates that political factors drove Washington to back away from a deal. A senior U.S. official was candid in his description to me: “We’re simply too close to the November election. The president can’t take political risks that could open him up to charges of weakness on national security issues.”

While there is always concern about whether Tehran will live up to its end of a bargain, numerous P5+1 officials have acknowledged that the Iranians focused their bottom line on uranium enrichment at the 3.5 percent level and sanctions relief. Iran’s enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent level; its corresponding stockpile; and its underground Fordo nuclear facility all are fair game for compromise—but for the right price. These will be key details in any round of talks going forward.

If there was a silver lining from the Moscow talks, it was the agreement to continue diplomacy at the technical level (rather than at the political level) through the end of 2012. Additional rounds of negotiations can help both sides continue to reacquaint themselves with one another after three decades of estrangement. But there is a downside: downgrading the level of talks further reduced the likelihood of an agreement, which already faces myriad obstacles. Nevertheless, continuing talks at a lower level is better than no talks at all.

The dustbin of history is littered with failed attempts by both sides to reach some sort of accommodation. In 2009, the Iranians balked. Today, it is the Obama administration that cannot take “yes” for an answer. Simply put, political considerations related to Israel and President Obama’s reelection campaign have severely inhibited Washington’s ability to engage in a real, step-by-step process based on reciprocity.

As a chronically reactive, authoritarian regime, the Islamic Republic will likely remain in wait-and-see mode until America takes what it perceives as tangible steps towards compromise. For its part, the Obama administration has likely calculated that, in order to achieve a breakthrough with Iran, there must first be a breakdown in the diplomatic process. Because multilateral talks have reached a deadlock, the United States perceives that it stands a better chance of getting what it really needs by escalating the conflict. This is a risky game to play but there is logic behind it.

Washington should be wary of overplaying its hand—something it often rightly accuses Tehran of doing. The U.S. should be realistic about the effectiveness of “crippling” sanctions—who is being crippled by these sanctions? Sanctioning Iran’s oil and financial transactions undoubtedly has an effect but perhaps not on those in Iran whom the United States is seeking to influence. History repeatedly demonstrates that bending, and much less breaking, does not come easily to an immensely prideful, nationalistic country like Iran.

Indeed, Obama was caught on a live microphone explaining this dynamic to Russia’s Dmitri Medvedev: “This is my last election… After my election I have more flexibility.” Obama said he needs “space” until after the November ballot, which will ostensibly increase his ability to compromise on contentious issues.15

In theory, this makes sense. But in practice, what’s past is prologue. Yet, regardless of who is president, Congress will be no less destructive; Israel will be no less obstinate; and there is always the need to protect the political party brand for the next round of elections.

Memo to the President

Finding ways to communicate—let alone compromise—with the Iranian government over divisive issues has been a key U.S. goal since the outset of the Obama administration. The Iranian obstacles to successful diplomacy are well documented: authoritarian governance; warring political elites; and a disputed presidential election that shattered an already fragile semblance of regime unity.

President Obama’s experience provides a glimpse of the equally important but less understood American obstacles to successful diplomacy with Iran. Despite the Obama administration’s genuine interest in doing things creatively, its diplomatic strategy has been hostage to big picture policy and political constraints. From the outset, when potential concessions to offer Iran were discussed in 2009, the need to “inject a bit of realism” into policy recommendations was emphasized. In government-speak, this means recommendations must be politically tenable.

In addition to domestic political considerations vis-à-vis Congress, the Obama administration placed a premium on maintaining an international approach toward Iran with the EU, Russia, China, and Israel. Working closely with other members of the UN Security Council to engage Iran directly eased international concerns about U.S. intentions, signaled America’s seriousness about reaching a diplomatic resolution, and strengthened the coalition over time. And this in turn was seen as preventing more violent actions by Israel.

For four years, the Obama team balanced foreign policy with a hostile Congress and its need to project strength on national security for reelection purposes. If its Iran policy at times seemed schizophrenic, that’s because it was. Effectively, the administration’s approach has been less to create political space for robust diplomacy and more to ensure that policy options fit within existing political realities. The paradox here is telling. Iran‘s domestic politics are often described as fractious, thereby rendering Iranian decision-makers unable to take “yes” for an answer. That may be the case—it was in 2009. But the same can be said of Washington as well.

There is only one way to break a thirty-four-year-old deadlock: break the rules. America and Iran must talk to each other and trade compromises of equal value in order to break down the hostility and misperceptions that paralyze relations. Only by taking risks for peace will leaders in Washington and Tehran have the necessary deliverables to beat back critics and spoilers. But how can they do this? Here are some recommendations for dealing with Iran in the next U.S. presidential term:

Start Right Away. The unfortunate reality is that there will never be a “right time” for America to push forward with Iran diplomacy in earnest. When Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, a conscious decision was made to wait until after Iran’s June presidential election before beginning serious attempts at outreach. The predominant school of thought in the administration believed that Ahmadinejad was politically toxic in Washington and Tel Aviv, and starting serious outreach to the Iranian government could inadvertently boost his reelection bid. But the decision to wait cost Washington six valuable months of its self-imposed, one-year timetable for engagement with Iran. Then the post-election protests and human rights abuses in Iran made engagement impossible for an additional four to five months. Looking ahead, Washington should reinvigorate its diplomatic outreach to Iran as soon as possible following the November 2012 election. And yet risks remain by doing so—Iran’s presidential election, scheduled for June 2013, clouds the political picture in Tehran more than usual—but American (and Iranian) officials do not have the luxury of waiting until the end of 2013 if they are truly intent on doing all that is necessary to avoid a military confrontation.

Discretion is the Better Part of Valor.
The majority of U.S.-Iran negotiations during Obama’s presidency have taken place in front of cameras or with journalists waiting outside the meeting room. Deconstructing an institutionalized enmity that has built up over three decades while constantly in the public eye is next to impossible. Decision-makers in Washington and Tehran that invest in the diplomatic process must simultaneously protect themselves politically from attacks at home. To maximize the chances for success, increasing the number of direct, senior-level meetings that are private if still a full-blown secret can help avoid many of the common pitfalls that media attention and political infighting bring.

Talk to Everyone—Directly.
As the only permanent member of the UN Security Council that does not have a direct channel to Iran, the U.S. is at a significant disadvantage. Going forward, efforts should be made to quickly establish such a channel. And the belief that dialogue is only possible if a singular authentic channel to Iran is found must be discarded. Such a channel doesn’t exist. Rather, Washington should recognize that there are many power centers in Iran, all of which need to be included in the process. Just as no country expects to sign a significant deal with the United States without addressing the concerns of the White House, State Department, Pentagon, and Congress, no major decision is likely to be made in Iran unless a range of key stakeholders is brought into the discussion. This partly explains Turkey and Brazil’s success in getting Iran to agree to the U.S. modalities of the nuclear swap. Their diplomacy with Iran was not focused on a single stakeholder in Tehran. Rather, these countries built confidence with and won support for their mediation from all relevant Iranian power centers. If direct engagement with the Iranian parliament, the supreme leader’s office, and other political centers and factions isn’t immediately possible, negotiators must be willing to give them time, so that these stakeholders’ inclination to scuttle a deal that they were not a part of, is neutralized.16

Stay the Course.
By now, Obama has likely realized what he should have known all along: diplomacy with Iran is hard, and it’s going to get harder. Since Obama took office, the political space in Washington to pursue diplomacy with Iran has progressively shrunk. The next American administration must go into talks focused on the long-term benefits of engaging Iran. It also must be willing to make the political investment necessary to give the process a real chance to succeed. If the administration is going to retreat at the first sign of Iranian intransigence or congressional opposition—which are both probably inevitable—then it might be better not to embark on a new round of diplomacy at all.17

In 2008, Barack Obama was the only presidential candidate with the foresight and fortitude to openly acknowledge the need to engage America’s adversaries diplomatically. Iran was at the top of his list. Four years later, the imperative has only grown, but the logic behind Obama’s thinking has not changed: the U.S. has much to gain and little to lose by abandoning its policies of the past three decades—including the revised Bush policy that became Obama’s policy—and instead beginning a real effort to establish working relations with Iran.

The enmity will not be undone over the course of a few meetings. Success will only come if diplomats place a premium on patience and long-term progress rather than quick fixes aimed at appeasing domestic political constituencies. Few argue against the need to try, and no realistic alternative better serves U.S. national security imperatives. Diplomacy with Iran is a marathon, not a sprint.

1 Deyoung, K. & Warrick, J. (2012, September 11). “Netanyahu: Without Ultimatum, U.S. Has No ‘Moral Right’ to Stop Israel from Attacking Iran.” The Washington Post, Accessed

2 See: Classified U.S. State Department Cables. “Iran: March 3 EU Debate on Sanctions and U.S. Policy Review.” March 13, 2009; “Iran Sanctions: AA/S Glaser Consults Key Ambassadors in Brussels.” April 8, 2009; “Iran Sanctions: AA/S Glaser Briefs EU on Priority Targets.” April 8, 2009.

3 Ravid, B. (2012, March 4). “Obama: All Options Remain on the Table to Prevent a Nuclear 
Iran,” Haaretz, Accessed.

4 See: Risen, J. (2012, March 17). “U.S. Faces a Tricky Task in Assessment of Data on Iran,” The New York Times, Accessed: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/world/middleeast/iran- intelligence-crisis-showed-difficulty-of-assessing-nuclear-data.html and Harel, A. (2012, January 18). “Israel: Iran Still Mulling Whether to Build a Nuclear Bomb,” Haaretz, Accessed.

5 “U.S., Israeli Security Officials Warn Against Attacking Iran.” Friends Committee on National Legislation website. Accessed: http://fcnl.org/issues/iran/us_israeli_security_officials_warn_ against_war_with_iran/

6 Miller, Aaron David. The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace. New York: Bantam, 2008. Pg. 273.

7 Kessler, G. (2006, June 18). “In 2003, U.S. Spurned Iran’s Offer of Dialogue,” The Washington Post, Accessed: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/17/AR2006061700727.html

8 Derakhshi, R. , Dahl, F. & Pomeroy, R. (2009, October 29). “Iran’s Mousavi Criticizes Nuclear Fuel Plan,” Reuters, Accessed: http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/10/29/us-iran-nuclear-opposition-idUSTRE59S0ZB20091029

9 For a PDF copy of President Obama’s letter to Brazilian President Lula, see: http://www.campaigniran.org/casmii/files/obama_letter_lula_iran.pdf

10 Peterson, S. (2011, January 22). “Why Iran’s Nuclear Talks Ended in Stalemate,” The Christian Science Monitor, Accessed: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/0122/Why-Iran-nuclear-talks-ended-in-stalemate

11 For example, see: Broad, W., Markoff, J. & Sanger, D. (2011, January 15). “Israeli Test on Worm Called Crucial in Iran Delay,” The New York Times, Accessed: http://www.nytimes. com/2011/01/16/world/middleeast/16stuxnet.html?pagewanted=all and Lander, M. (2011, January 11). “Iran Nuclear Effort is Stalled by Sanctions, Clinton Says,” The New York Times, Accessed: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/world/middleeast/11diplo.html

12 Peterson,S. (2011, February 4). “Iran’s Khamenei Praises Egyptian Protestors, Declares ‘Islamic Awakening,’” The Christian Science Monitor, Accessed: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle- East/2011/0204/Iran-s-Khamenei-praises-Egyptian-protesters-declares-Islamic-awakening

13 (2012, September 13). “Iran Oil Exports Cut in Half Due to Sanctions, Says U.S.,” Haaretz, Accessed: http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/iran-oil-exports-nearly-cut-in-half-due-to-sanctions-says-u-s-1.464621

14 Sly, L. & Warrick, J. (2012, May 23). “Nuclear Talks with Iran Show Little Progress,” The Washington Post, Accessed: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/nuclear-talks-begin-in-baghdad-a-day-after-un-watchdog-says-deal-with-iran-is-near/2012/05/23/gJQABp73jU_story.html

15 Goodman, J.D. (2012, March 26). “Microphone Catches a Candid Obama,” The NewYork Times, Accessed: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/27/us/politics/obama-caught-on-microphone-telling-medvedev-of-flexibility.html

16 Parsi, T. & Marashi, R. (2011, November 12). “Want to Defuse the Iran Crisis?,” Foreign Policy, Accessed: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/11/12/want_to_defuse_the_iran_ crisis?page=full

17 Ibid.

Reza Marashi is research director at the National Iranian American Council. He previously served in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Policy, Atlantic, and National Interest. On Twitter: @rezamarashi.

Lost in the Middle East

They hate what we see right here in this chamber—a democratically elected government. . . . They hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble.

—President George W. Bush, September 20, 2001, quoted in The Stakes: America in the Middle Eastby Shibley Telhami.

Perhaps nothing is more insulting to Arab societies than U.S. claims that America values freedoms in ways that ordinary Muslim and Arab citizens don’t—or even worse, can’t. It is one thing to claim that the United States has strong geostrategic interests in the region that render democracy inconsequential; it is another altogether to sell such interest, which has resulted in authoritarian durability, as the result of something inherently undemocratic among the people of the region. Not only has the United States continued to invest in the myth of a civilizational divide but it now designs policies to remedy this clash that miss the root cause of the problem and, indeed, perpetuate it.

Because democratic inferiority is the policy theory du jour, we are now confronted with a new set of policies aimed at addressing it. The United States is currently engaged in bolstering liberal and secular elements of Arab societies as a means to counter the influence of Islamists. This strategy does little to address the sources of anti-Americanism in the region. But describing the problem as an ideological one exonerates the United States from culpability because this strategy implies that Islamists are problematic because of their Islamic belief systems and not their anti-Americanism.

In fact, commentators often assume that Islamists are anti-American by default, failing to recognize the significant variation that exists among Islamists in their anti-American sentiments. While Islamists have shown significant levels of moderation on domestic political issues relating to Islam, whether it is human rights, women’s rights, or democracy, they have been less compromising on the issues that they are most passionate about, like foreign policy. Islamist groups have shown a remarkable willingness to play within the rules of democratic elections—in part because they can be confident about the level of their support among the voters. According to Muriel Asseburg, “The democratic openings that have been achieved, albeit limited, have encouraged many Islamists to pursue their agendas through the ballot box rather than violence; when and where Islamists have been allowed to do so, they have started to work for change within the political systems.”1

The United States understands that Islamists, especially those in the Arab world, will not turn a blind eye toward American power in the region. Since the Algerian elections of 1991, which would have brought the Islamic Salvation Front to power, the United States has made clear its stance. According to Fawaz Gerges, “The U.S. administration understood that the Islamist tide emerging in the region was one that pitted future governments in that region against the geostrategic priorities of the United States.”2 Public discourse, however, equated political Islam with hatred for Western culture, a hatred of Christianity, and a hatred of Judaism. This discourse never reflexively analyzed the important role of Christians and Jews as “People of the Book” in these Islamic movements, nor the quite positive outlooks many Islamist movements have for Western European countries like France. Masking the problem as “Islam versus the West” ignored the root cause of anti-Americanism in the region—and continues to do so. By reducing the real grievances of the citizens as delusional constructs incapable of appreciating the civilized norms of the West, the United States continues to inflame the sensibilities of ordinary citizens.

The Algerian (1991) and Palestinian (2006) elections showed that clients not in line with U.S. preferences can suffer unpleasant consequences. There are a multitude of incidents in recent years in which the United States has sanctioned client regimes, including Yasser Arafat’s Palestine after the Aqsa Intifada, the economic sanctions against Jordan for not joining the Iraq coalition in 1991, hostility toward the Al-Saud for not doing more to counter the radical anti-American tide, and strong language against [Hosni] Mubarak’s regime to do more about anti-Americanism in the Egyptian Republic.

So worried are the actors in the Arab world about the ways in which the United States might respond to Islamist victories that Islamist movements themselves sometimes worry about the consequences of their own success. When a 2007 International Republican Institute poll revealed that Morocco’s PJD [Justice and Development Party] was set to win 47 percent of the vote, the senior deputy, Abdallah Kiran, appeared on Al Jazeera TV’s Wara’ Al-Khabar (Behind the News). In his interview, he proclaimed it wasn’t in the PJD’s or Morocco’s interest to have such an overwhelming show of support for his own movement. He cautioned that the PJD and Morocco could suffer the fate of other Islamist movements that had made gains through democracy.3 These same concerns are structuring the strategies of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as well.

Yet key American analysts and policy makers continue to argue that secular and liberal forces have to be encouraged to counter the Islamists.4 These policies seldom address the issue of implementing strategies that would lessen anti-Americanism. Rather, they appear to be designed to address the problem despite levels of anti-Americanism. Delaying democracy until the right liberal and secular conditions emerge on the ground is a remarkably unrealistic strategy, one that reinforces the status quo even as it misses its realities. Gregory Gause, for example, calls for the United States to hold back its efforts on promoting democracy. Gause writes, “The United States should instead focus its energy on encouraging the development of secular, nationalist, and liberal political organizations that could compete on an equal footing with Islamist parties. Only by doing so can Washington help ensure that when elections finally do occur, the results are more in line with U.S. interests.”5 The assumption here is that secular and liberal forces will necessarily be more pro-American than the Islamists. But this begs the question of why a secular group would be any more pro-American than an Islamist group. Historical and contemporary records show that this is not the case. Secular forces have rarely been pro-American. As Timothy Mitchell reminds us, “As a rule, the most secular regimes in the Middle East have been those most independent of the United States. . . . Egypt under Nasser, republican Iraq, the Palestine national movement, post-independence Algeria, the Republic of South Yemen, and Baathist Syria all charted courses of independence from the United States.”6 Representing the national sentiments of their people, all these countries turned to the Soviet Union for assistance during the Cold War. Shibley Telhami concurs: “In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, the U.S. saw secular movements as more threatening to U.S. geostrategic interests than Islamic groups and governments.”7 So when and how, and under what conditions, did secularism become pro-American?

This also raises the question of why liberalism should be a precondition to democratic transitions. Liberal values, at least in the Western experience, emerged as a result of democracy; they were not conditions of democracy. Women’s rights, gay rights, and the emancipation of the enslaved all occurred more than a hundred years after the democratic experience in the United States. This is not to justify the lack of liberal values in the Arab world but instead to question their usefulness for democracy. On this same point, even if the Arab world were to become a beacon of liberal values, what would guarantee that these liberal values would be accompanied by pro-American opinions? As policymakers continue to figure out how to liberally reform Islam, they should also be aware that no amount of reform will alter the image of the United States in the region without a direct change of U.S. policies.

To that point, none of America’s friends in the region are models of secular and liberal leaderships. For example, Jordan continues to sanction honor killings, and Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights is astonishingly bad. The Fatah leadership has become more pro-American, but this is not because it has become more secular or democratic—it has become so because of U.S. aid and security arrangements. There was no miraculous liberal or secular transformation in the ranks of Fatah when it became a pro-American client.

The shortsightedness of the American quest for liberal and secular friends is similar to the debates about whether to accommodate or confront Islamist actors. Advocates of engagement believe Islamists can be won over, while opponents believe that engagement only harnesses support for the movements and that only moderation will leave the requisite room for their accommodation. However, the dilemma is clear: the moderation of Islamist stances doesn’t necessarily mean that citizens will follow suit. Engaging elite decision-makers by either accommodation or confrontation is a strategy of cooptation. Even if Islamic movements were to moderate their politics, it does not follow that their societies would stay on board.

Consider Fatah before the Oslo Accords. Moderation was an Israeli and American precondition to engagement of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Fatah conceded and recognized Israel, and the vast majority of Palestinians supported the decision, even while Hamas enjoyed minority support among the population. When the rewards for moderation were not granted—the peace process did not end with the Oslo agreement—Palestinians gradually moved their support to Hamas. Even Hamas could quickly lose its support from the public if it turned to support U.S. preferences on foreign policy. These strategies of cooptation have worked to ensure the status quo but have done little to address the roots of daily grievances.

Another U.S. strategy is to either rid the region of its Islamist problem or shun the Islamists until they acquiesce, but that, too, is limited in its analytical rigor. The Islamist movement is a social movement. Not only is it legitimated by Islamic doctrine but its strength is its nationalist core. So long as Arab citizens think the United States rules their world, Islamism will continue to serve as the vehicle through which citizens voice their protest and their dissent. No amount of U.S. shunning will destroy the movement; if anything, this will only strengthen it. Today’s Islamism is yesterday’s pan-Arabism. Nationalist movements are difficult to defeat and they are intolerant of collective punishments. Shunning such movements only strengthens their support base. Further, if Islamists like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are believed to have become too compliant with U.S. geostrategic interests while ignoring Arab public opinion, then surely there will be other movements that will grow to champion the voices of Arab citizens. These new movements may be religious, secular, or liberal in orientation.

In foreign and security policy, when you deal with a country, you deal with the government of that country. What are we supposed to do? Deal with the man on the street?

James Baker, former U.S. secretary of state, interview, PBS Frontline, November 15, 2001.
A sounder approach to the U.S. problem with Islamists would involve reducing levels of anti-American sentiment across the region more generally. The United States needs to compete directly for the hearts and minds of ordinary Arab citizens, and should premise its engagements with Islamists on winning over the supporters of these movements and not simply their elite decision-makers.

The United States will probably not be able to alter the political worldviews of Islamist movements. But it can compete with Islamists to win the Arab street—which is not a monolithic mass of people with attitudes fixed in stone. Reducing levels of anti-Americanism in this way will directly mitigate the audiences of these Islamist groups. With a friendly street, real democratic reform becomes possible. The current status quo does not serve this objective. The United States today is at an important juncture—it can no longer only rely on Arab states to win the so-called War on Terror, and it needs the help of the population, which is alienated from U.S. policies to begin with; therefore, it must constructively reevaluate the way it conducts its business in the region.

Even while the United States has proclaimed more commitment toward democracy as part of its Greater Middle East Initiative of 2004 (dubbed the Freedom Agenda), such pronouncements were accompanied by war, devastation, occupation, and authoritarian consolidation. As a result, Islamism has grown in strength. Given these dynamics, many in the policy establishment believed that democratic elections were the route to pro-American democracy. In the current climate of anti-Americanism, free and democratic elections cannot return pro-American platforms. Wars are not conducive to winning support from ordinary people. Citizens reinforce the status quo.

Graham Fuller had noticed growing political apathy in the Arab world that is utterly alarming. Before the Arab Spring of 2011 he wrote:

This greater surface political passivity in the face of growing U.S. interventionism and imposition of unpopular policies represents a disturbing new trend—the concealment of anger, frustration, and impotence. . . . Part of the quiescence can be attributed to regime skills in managing repression. . . . But part of it too represents a bitter fatalism that resistance is so essentially futile, that the domestic and international order is so arrayed as to make protest both impotent and impossible. The United States is observed by Muslims to have irrevocably turned a corner in the embrace of naked hostility to Muslims, their interests, honor and dignity. . . . The silent impassiveness is the newest and most disturbing feature of anti-American sentiment. It is dangerous to assume that such Muslim anger is basically transient, manageable, and basically irrelevant to U.S. global strategy and deeper U.S. interests in the region.8

The verdict is still out on how the Arab Spring might change these realities. But it is clear that Arab public opinion shouldn’t be ignored. However, U.S. policies have done precisely that—they have overlooked the sentiments of ordinary citizens.

The idea that authoritarian tactics could either ignore or manipulate Arab public opinion firmly guided the first Camp David Talks in the 1970s, when key policy makers decided to disregard Arab sentiment. This approach was again adopted in 1991 by the United States as it established its coalition of Arab leaders to attack Saddam Hussein in Iraq.9 In order for several Arab countries to satisfy U.S. geostrategic priorities, they have had to ignore their own publics and repress public sentiment. It is no wonder that all the major U.S. and Israeli interventions in the region—the First Gulf War in 1991, the War on Terror from 2001 onward, the Iraq War of 2003, Israel’s reoccupation of the West Bank in 2000, Israel’s Lebanon incursion of 2006, and its attack on Gaza in 2008—witnessed reversals in levels of political and civil liberties across the region.

This raises the question of where Arab public opinion stands on issues related to the United States. Significantly, the crux of Arab resentment for America relates to U.S. policies in the region. Arab citizens have little faith in the United States and believe that it will never advance the interests of the people. A Program of International Policy Attitudes survey of citizens around the world found the Middle East region to have the lowest levels of enthusiasm for Obama’s presidency.10 In fact, a Pew 2008 poll found very small percentages across the region had confidence that Obama would do the right thing in international affairs.11 According to that poll, only 7 percent in Pakistan and Turkey, 23 percent in Egypt, 20 percent in Jordan, and 22 percent in Lebanon believed that Obama would do what they thought was right in international affairs. Arab citizens feel threatened by U.S. military power, and significant majorities are uneasy with the hegemonic domination the United States now has in the region.

A 2007 Pew poll found that majorities in eight Middle Eastern countries were worried that the United States could become a military threat.12 In fact, significant majorities in a World Public Opinion poll showed that large numbers support the United States removing its military bases from all Islamic countries; 72 percent supported this view in Morocco, 92 percent in Egypt, and 71 percent in Pakistan.13Another World Public Opinion poll found that majorities across the region supported the following statement: “America pretends to be helpful to Muslim countries, but in fact everything it does is really part of a scheme to take advantage of people in the Middle East and steal their oil.” This statement found support with 87 percent of Egyptians, 62 percent of Moroccans, and 56 percent of Pakistanis. Further majorities believe that the U.S. goal in the region is to maintain control over Middle Eastern oil, with 91 percent of Egyptians, 82 percent of Moroccans, 68 percent of Pakistanis, 87 percent of Jordanians, 89 percent of Palestinians, and 89 percent of the Turks supporting this assessment of U.S. influence in the region.14

Attitudes toward the United States are also structured by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. When Telhami conducted a six-country poll in 2008, he found that the most-often cited response to improving the U.S. image in the region was finding a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.15 Majorities across the region—86 percent of Egyptians, 77 percent of Palestinians, and 58 percent even in Azerbaijan—felt that the United States was not doing its part to resolve the conflict. Further, majorities in Arab states don’t believe the United States is genuinely seeking the creation of an independent, economically viable Palestinian state. Ninety-one percent of Egyptians, 64 percent of Moroccans, 63 percent of Jordanians, and 52 percent of Turks support this position.16 In Saudi Arabia, which witnesses some of the most vehement anti-American stances, a poll of elites found that 66 percent said their frustrations with the United States would be significantly reduced if they were able to strike a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.17 Telhami puts it concisely when he writes, “Only peace between Israelis and Arabs can significantly reduce the challenge to America’s interests in the region.”18

For sixty years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy . . . and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspiration of all people.

—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speech at the American University in Cairo, June 20, 2005.

Stability will remain the central concern of the United States in the Arab world for the foreseeable future. The global economy will continue to rely on Middle Eastern oil for several decades into the future. Oil accounts for 40 percent of the world’s energy consumption, and its levels will not fall in the next twenty years. It is estimated that the European Union (EU) will need to import 70 percent of its energy needs by 2025. In 2008, it imported 50 percent. The United States will also be importing 60 percent of its energy needs, mostly from the Persian Gulf. Further, estimates hold that by 2035, the global energy consumption will be double of what it was in 2005, with China and India demanding larger stakes of the world’s energy reserves.19

These realities make the geostrategic utility of the Arab world indispensable to the global economy and will structure U.S. engagement with the region. Islamists could harm U.S. energy interests by disrupting oil flow to the United States,20 but they could also favor other countries, like China. China now imports 60 percent of its oil from the Persian Gulf. In the next two decades, that number is likely to climb to 90 percent.21 Islamists have threatened to sabotage oil fields as a means of retaliating against the United States. The Saudi government spent a billion dollars to protect its oil fields from Islamist extremists right after the Iraq War of 2003 began, and it then deployed 30,000 troops to protect Saudi oil infrastructure. Another concern is the potential Islamist access to the oil fields of the Persian Gulf. Many analysts worry that if Islamists were to seize control of the oil they would be less likely to adjust production to keep prices low, as do many current Gulf leaders. Recognizing the increasing need for security, between 2000 and 2003 the Bush administration increased military aid to the top twenty-five oil suppliers in the world, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Iraq. Central Asia is also a growing region coming firmly under U.S. patronage, with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan receiving large amounts of military aid. The EU has signed bilateral energy partnerships with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan that circumvent the democracy and human rights strictures of the European Neighborhood Policy. In fact, the 2001 Defense Review (a panel established by President Bush to evaluate U.S. energy security) explicitly noted the possible deployment of U.S. armed forces where energy supplies might be impeded. In 2007, the Bush administration established a new Africa command for the sizable relocation of naval forces to protect Nigerian oil fields, and defined Western African oil as a “strategic national interest.” As the United States protects its oil needs, so does it compromise its stances on democracy.22

The heavy buildup of the U.S. military in the Gulf is not simply to maintain U.S. access to oil supplies, but also to guarantee that enemies do not seize these fields. According to Telhami, for more than half a century a central drive behind the American military strategy in the oil-rich region is “to deny control of these vast resources to powerful enemies.”23 This was the logic that the United States employed against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq when it invaded Kuwait. If Saddam were not pushed out of Kuwait, the reasoning went, he would have doubled the capacity of Iraq’s oil supply and would have become the most significant power in the Middle East.24 Since Iraq’s foreign policy was radically at odds with that of the United States, there was all the more reason for the United States to sanction Iraq.25

We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, bridge misunderstanding, and seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree.

—President Barack Obama, speech in Ankara, Turkey, April 6, 2009.

President Barack Obama may work for a better Middle East strategy, yet there are reasons to remain skeptical. The same strategic facts remain in play now as under the administrations of former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The Obama administration is preoccupied with Afghanistan and Pakistan, as the fear of those states turning Islamist is paramount—all the more so because Pakistan possesses nuclear capabilities.

But studying the trajectory of Middle East foreign policy from Clinton to Bush, it makes clear that in many ways Bush was simply continuing a U.S. foreign policy that very much characterized the Clinton years. True, Clinton and Obama are savvier interlocutors than was Bush. Nevertheless, Clinton’s policies can’t be seen as improving the position of the United States in the region. The Clinton administration placed the devastating sanctions on Iraq, resulting in the suffering of ordinary citizens. With children denied basic medicines like antibiotics, the death toll mounted in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion of 2003. The Clinton administration shunned the Palestinians after the Camp David fiasco, and the subsequent international condemnation of Arafat and the Palestinians for not accepting a peace treaty that would not have guaranteed a territorially contiguous Palestinian state on the West Bank. The Clinton administration enacted democratization reversals, and U.S. policy became readily clear about its refusal to deal with Islamists—all while the sources of anti-Americanism continued to grow.

Officials in the Clinton administration admitted that if the Islamists did not have an international agenda, the United States would not resist their coming to power. In other words, the theological or potentially non-democratic character of the Islamists is not the driving force behind U.S. rejection of them. The United States rejects Islamists because they are anti-American. According to Fawaz Gerges, “The Clinton administration would not oppose Islamists if they . . . kept their focus on domestic issues.”26 In other words, it appears that the United States is far more likely to tolerate conservative, nondemocratic rulers, like the monarchy in Saudi Arabia and the Taliban in Afghanistan (before they became more internationalized through Al-Qaeda), than a democratic state that is not friendly toward the United States.

One official affiliated with Clinton’s administration was more blunt: “We are prepared to live with Islamic regimes as long as they not endanger or be hostile to our vital interests.”27 Under Clinton, U.S. policy toward Islamists became more crystallized. Government officials worried about the implications of Islamists because of their foreign policy agendas. And while it is not necessarily the place for the world’s superpower to take this stance, the rhetorical commitment to democracy makes the democracy-promotion establishment seem hypocritical at best. Worse, however, this hypocrisy injures the potential for democracy in the region.

Excerpted from Of Empires and Citizens: Pro-American Democracy or No Democracy at All? by Amaney A. Jamal. © 2012 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

 

1 Muriel Asseburg and Daniel Brumberg, eds., “The Challenges of Islamists for EU and U.S. Policies: Conflict, Stability, and Reform” (Washington, DC: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik/ United States Institute of Peace, 2007; accessed at http://www.swp-berlin.org/fileadmin/ contents/products/research_papers/2007_RP12_ass_brumberg_ks.pdf).

2 Fawaz Gerges, America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests?(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 77.

3 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Debate over Electoral Survey,” April 2006 (accessed at http://www.carnegieendowment.org/arb/?fa=show&article=20933.

4 F. Gregory Gause III, “Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?” Foreign Affairs, September–October 2005 (accessed at http://fullaccess.foreignaffairs.org/20050901faessay84506/f-gregory -gause- iii/can-democracy-stop-terrorism.html?mode=print); Judy Barsalou, “Islamists at the Ballot Box: Findings from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Turkey,” United States Institute of Peace Special Report no. 144 (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2005; accessed at http:// www.usip.org/pubs/specialreports/sr144.html).

5 Gause, “Can Democracy Stop Terrorism?”

6 Timothy Mitchell, “McJihad: Islam in the U.S. Global Order,” Social Text 20, no. 4 (2002): 1 (accessed at http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/social_text/v020/20.4mitchell.html).

7 Shibley Telhami, The Stakes: America in the Middle East (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2002), 27.

8 Graham Fuller, The Future of Political Islam (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 160.

9 Shibley Telhami, The Stakes: America in the Middle East, 68.

10 Steven Kull, Clay Ramsay, Stephan Weber, and Evan Lewis, “America’s Global Image in the Obama Era” (Washington, DC: Program on International Policy Attitudes, 2009; accessed at http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/pdf/jul09/WPO_USObama_Jul09_packet.pdf).

11 Michael Remez and Richard Wike, “Global Media Celebrate Obama Victory—But Cautious Too: A Changed View of American Democracy” (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center Pub- lications, 2008; accessed at http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1033/global-media-celebrate-obama -victory-but-cautious-too).

12 Pew Global Attitudes Project, “Global Unease with Major World Powers: Rising Environmental Concern in 47-Nation Survey” (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2007; accessed at http:// pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=256).

13 “Poll Finds Widespread International Opposition to U.S. Bases in Persian Gulf,” Decem- ber 15, 2008 (accessed at http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/international_ security_bt/579.php?lb=btvoc&pnt=579&nid=&id=).

14 Steven Kull, “Can Obama Restore the U.S. Image in the Middle East?” Harvard International Review, December 19, 2008 (accessed at http://hir.harvard.edu/can-obama-restore-the -us-image-in-the-middle-east).

15 Shibley Telhami with Zogby International, 2008 Arab Public Opinion Poll (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2008; accessed at http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/events/ 2008/0414_middle_east/0414_middle_east_telhami.pdf).

16 Steven Kull, Clay Ramsay, Stephen Weber, Evan Lewis, Ebrahim Mohseni, Mary Speck, Melanie Ciolek, and Melinda Brouwer, “Muslim Public Opinion on U.S. Policy, Attacks on Civilians, and al Qaeda” (Washington DC: Program on International Policy Attitudes, 2007; accessed at http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/pdf/apr07/START_Apr07_rpt.pdf).

17 Telhami, The Stakes: America in the Middle East, 98.

18 Ibid., 178.

19 Richard Youngs, “Energy: A Reinforced Obstacle to Democracy?” (Madrid: Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior, 2008; accessed at http://www.fride.org/publication/467/energy-a-reinforced-obstacle-to-democracy).

20 Ibid.

21 Telhami, The Stakes: America in the Middle East, 135.

22 Youngs, “Energy: A Reinforced Obstacle to Democracy?”

23 Telhami, The Stakes: America in the Middle East, 140.

24 Ibid., 148.

25 Ibid.

26 Gerges, America and Political Islam, 102.

27 Ibid.

Amaney A. Jamal is an associate professor of politics at Princeton University. Her most recent book is Of Empires and Citizens: Pro-American Democracy or No Democracy at All? Her first book, Barriers to Democracy, won the Best Book Award in Comparative Democratization at the American Political Science Association. She is a co-author of Citizenship and Crisis: Arab Detroit after 9-11. Jamal is a principal investigator of the Arab Barometer Project, and a senior advisor on the Pew Research Center Projects focusing on Islam in America (2006) and Global Islam (2010).

Islamophobes

In August 2008, my book How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America was published by The Penguin Press. A few months later, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. Despite my own delusions of importance as a writer, I must admit that there is no direct connection, but the facts are related nevertheless. Since my book is largely about how Arab Muslim Americans had survived the erosion of their civil rights after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the election of Obama, a constitutional lawyer and community organizer, is significant. His presidency seemed to promise a new era of racial justice in American politics, what many have called the arrival of a “post-racial” age in the United States. But in the years since Obama became president, Muslim Americans have witnessed something new and far from a nirvana of coexistence, namely the rise of an angry, populist movement across the nation that is opposed not just to the free exercise of their religion, but sometimes to their very presence in the country. How did this happen?

Before answering this question, it’s worth reflecting on what life for Muslim and Arab Americans was like under George W. Bush’s administration, the period that had inspired me to write my book. It’s no exaggeration to say that prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, Muslim and Arab Americans registered very little on the daily radar of most Americans. We were largely an invisible minority, and if Americans thought about us at all, they conjured angry overseas mobs, swarthy terrorists, or gluttonous oil sheikhs, in other words the stock pictures of the Orientalist imaginary. With a few exceptions, such as the 1998 film The Siege, contemporary American popular culture almost never represented us in America, let alone as Americans. If we were present, it was as relatively harmless and isolated individuals. The cross-dressing Corporal Klinger, played by Lebanese American actor Jamie Farr, on the TV show M*A*S*H was probably the best known Arab American on television, and if you asked someone to name a Muslim American, you would probably hear an answer either of Muhammad Ali, now comfortably celebrated, or Malcolm X, who was killed long ago. But after September 11, the idea that Muslims and Arabs were actually living next door became a major source of terrorist anxiety. Immediately following the attacks, vigilante violence skyrocketed against Arabs, Muslims, and anyone who resembled “a Muslim,” which generally meant brown skin or something wrapped around one’s head. Almost overnight, we had become a shadowy community to be afraid of.

The Bush administration helped fuel this anxiety. While it is true that six days after the terrorist attacks President Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington, DC, where he spoke out against vigilantism and told the country that “the face of terror is not the true faith of Islam…Islam is peace,” the actions of his administration spoke louder than his words. The FBI had asked the public for help following the terrorist attacks and established a hotline for callers. Within just seven days, the Bureau received over 96,000 tips or potential leads from a nervous public. For weeks after the attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft would announce the number of people arrested in connection with the investigation, which reached over a thousand, in what seemed like an obvious attempt to tell the American public that they working the case hard, especially after having failed to thwart the attacks in the first place. As it turned out, none of those arrested after September 11 had anything to do with Al-Qaeda. (Zacarias Massaoui, the so-called twentieth hijacker, had been arrested on August 16, 2001.) In an October 2001 speech to the nation’s mayors, Ashcroft proffered the suggestion that terrorism was limited to immigrants to the United States. “Let the terrorists among us be warned,” he intoned. “If you overstay your visa even by one day, we will arrest you.” And in 2002, the government announced its new “Operation Tips” program, wherein it aimed to recruit letter carriers and couriers, utility company workers, cable TV installers, and others whose jobs provided access to private homes, as amateur spies who were to report “suspicious” activity to the government. Only after loud public opposition—since in this case it was not just the rights of immigrants, Arabs, and Muslims that were being violated—was the program cancelled.

Other law enforcement policies played out similarly. On September 11, 2002, the government began a program of “Special Registration” that required non-immigrant men from twenty-five Muslim-majority countries to register their whereabouts in the country. Then, there was heightened immigration enforcement that directly targeted Arab and Muslim communities, the deployment of spies and informants in the community, warrantless wiretaps, the abuse of the material witness statute (keeping people in jail longer than they should have been), microscopic examination of Muslim charities, and more. All of these policies were corrosive on the human level for Arab and Muslim Americans, ultimately breaking down all trust between people as well as alienating the communities from law enforcement.

Almost all these programs fueled the media for years after the September 11 attacks. And as we were transformed from invisibility to hyper-visibility, we now occupied that zone in the American imagination traditionally reserved for enemies and subversives. But, the random acts of vigilante violence notwithstanding, the new focus on us didn’t translate into grassroots movements of opposition during these years. Why should it have? The Bush administration was announcing to the public that it was taking care of the supposed threat we posed so they didn’t have to. The only time the American public became highly agitated about a related issue was when, in 2006, the Bush Administration proposed selling the management of major American shipping ports to Dubai Ports World, a company based in the United Arab Emirates. After having been told for years by their government that Arabs and Muslims were to be feared, the American public decided this was a contradiction too big to bear. The outcry was loud and obnoxious, and Dubai Ports World eventually sold their American port management business to AIG.

With this new-found scrutiny came an almost complete lack of understanding of the texture of our lives. What often took its place was the most simplistic stereotyping of Muslims or an almost willfully ignorant knowledge about Islam, even from top government officials. Dale Watson, the FBI’s top intelligence official during and after the terrorist attacks, was asked if he could describe the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. “Not technically, no,” was his response. Just prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, even President Bush reportedly had to be schooled on the elementary fact that that practitioners of Islam fell into two main sects. We Muslims and Arabs were constantly talked about, but rarely heard from, and the discussions about us were shallow, presumptuous, and dangerous. Since few Americans had any real knowledge about Islam or the Arab world, gross generalizations and bigoted statements flew easily and unchallenged across the airwaves.

“He’s An Arab”

I decided sometime in 2004 that I would attempt, in my own small way, to counteract this terrible and growing tendency towards dehumanizing Arab and Muslim Americans by writing a book. I sought to fill the emptiness of the stereotype with the stuff of human life, and the best way to do that, I surmised, was to ground my research in a specific geography and with a particular group of people. I chose to write about Brooklyn, New York, home to the largest number of Arab Americans according to the 2000 U.S. Census, and where I live. I also chose to write about primarily young Arab Muslim Americans in their early twenties, since it seems to me that to be young and figure out your place in the world is already difficult, but to be young and figure out your place in the world with a growing hostility from society around you is even more trying. I had a sense of the kind of stories I wanted to write about. They were the ones I was hearing from friends and occasionally reading about, but I didn’t go specifically looking for the stories that ended up in my book. Instead, I visited mosques and community centers, talked to friends and had them ask their friends, consulted with lawyers, and put the word out that if anyone wanted to tell me a story, I would offer a sympathetic ear. Writing the book became my own journey through twenty-something Arab America.

What I discovered was a generation that took its responsibilities to represent itself very seriously. This was particularly true among the more devout Muslims. Pious Muslim women told me repeatedly, for example, that wearing a headscarf was not done solely for reasons of religious virtue but was also motivated by the need to represent themselves and not let others represent them. The headscarf became a symbol of religious pride and an opportunity for non-Muslims to ask the young women questions about the faith, and many had developed an index of answers to the questions. I found a lot of anxiety among young Muslim men in particular regarding their own employment prospects. They worried, not without reason, that all the negative sentiment expressed towards Muslims and Arabs would narrow their chances to land jobs. I also heard about a few blatant acts of vigilante violence, but many more people underscored to me the support they had from neighbors and friends.

Then there were stories about the government. After the September 11 attacks, Arab and Muslim communities in and around Brooklyn felt besieged by the various government policies and law enforcement initiatives that singled them out. Lawyers complained to me about the difficulties they had finding clients in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. I interviewed one young Syrian American woman whose family was detained for three months after the attacks and then were just as suddenly released. The father of another young Palestinian man had been arrested in a sting operation and was sitting in jail awaiting deportation, so the young man had been forced to assume a new role not just in life, but within his family too, and so on. Other researchers were making similar findings. One 2006 study by the Vera Institute on Arab American communities and policing after September 11 found that “although community members also reported increases in hate victimization, they expressed greater concern about being victimized by federal policies and practices than by individual acts of harassment or violence.”

The social consequence of this kind of government scrutiny was what I was mostly interested in documenting, and it was fascinating to hear stories from Arab American shopkeepers about the support they received from their neighbors, or to witness the active involvement of human rights advocates in the affairs of the community, or to hear about churches and synagogues that were pursuing interfaith efforts to get to know their Muslim neighbors better. In the face of government repression bearing down on an essentially vulnerable community, active resistance was found among key elements of American civil society, operating with integrity and sometimes very effectively to counteract the rampant scapegoating.

And so it seemed reasonable to believe that the civil rights of Arabs and Muslim Americans would again be if not completely restored, at least not made into a political football to score easy points with by the time Barack Obama was elected president. After all, at the Democratic National Convention of 2004, Obama (then a Senate candidate) had spoken out unambiguously for the civil rights of Arab Americans. “If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties,” he said to wide applause. And by 2008, the American public was growing tired of George W. Bush, who was serving out his second term, and of the wars overseas. The government’s disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina signaled to many that the administration was arrogantly out of touch with the needs of its people, and the sudden near collapse of the banking system translated into a loss of confidence in Republican economic policies. Change was in the air.

Then again, just being Muslim or Arab American became a major political issue in the 2008 presidential election. John McCain, the Republican candidate for president, tried to dress down a woman at a Town Hall meeting who said she couldn’t “trust” Obama because “he’s an Arab.” McCain responded by saying, “No Ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with,” as if being a decent family man is the opposite of being an Arab. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign, which had moved two women in hijab out of camera during a campaign stop, called the repeated allegation that Obama was a Muslim a “smear,” as if being a Muslim was the equivalent to being a criminal. Still, I was optimistic that these could be chalked up to the dying breaths of political opportunism at the expense of Muslim Americans.

Boy, was I wrong, and not just because the Obama administration has followed, and in many cases even expanded, the same harmful policies as its predecessor on civil rights issues. Under Obama, the government has relied more on its dubious use of spies and informants within the Muslim American community, authorized the killing of an American citizen without due process through its now common tactic of drone strikes, deported unauthorized immigrants at far faster rate than George W. Bush, grown the surveillance state massively, protected its own legally questionable actions by invoking the State Secrets Act, and much more.

Although the Obama administration speaks in a far less aggressive rhetoric when implementing these terrible policies, the popular climate since 2008 for Arab and Muslim Americans has nevertheless neither improved nor stayed the same but has gotten precipitously worse. Polling data bears out the change. Just weeks after the terrorist attacks, 39 percent of Americans harbored negative feelings toward Muslims according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in October 2001. Surveys in recent years repeatedly show that that number has climbed to around 50 percent. Opinions are one thing, actions are another, and in the last few years in the United States, a right-wing anti-Muslim activist core has mobilized against a perceived “Islamic threat” on American values and the American system in ways they hadn’t prior to 2008. Legislation has been introduced in more than two dozen states prohibiting the use of Sharia law (sometimes referred to simply as “foreign law”) in state courts, and the Republican National Platform of 2012 contains almost identical language. Kansas recently signed its bill into law, even though there is no known case of a Kansas judge basing a ruling on Sharia and in the American legal system the Constitution necessarily takes precedence over any other law. But much of the anti-Muslim agitation is about phantom threats anyway.

Nor is the putative threat of Sharia law usurping the Constitution the only anti-Muslim agitation in the American public sphere. Legislators actively promote the idea that Muslim Americans are fifth-column infiltrators, poised to take over the country in the name of Islam. This past summer, five Republican lawmakers sent a letter to the Justice Department claiming their “serious security concerns” of the “deep penetration in the halls of our United States government” by the Muslim Brotherhood. (Other Republicans dismissed the allegation for what it is: ludicrous.) Peter King, a Republican congressman from New York and chairman of the Homeland Security Commission, held five public hearings about radicalization in the American Muslim community, even though all the serious social science on this question—from the Pew Research Center, the Rand Corporation, and the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security—shows that American Muslims overwhelmingly reject extremist ideology.

And today’s anti-Muslim mobilization is not confined solely to politicians. A cartoonish pastor of a fringe church in Florida garnered international headlines when he sought to burn the Koran on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. He was talked out of his actions by the secretary of defense, but proceeded to perform his heinous action at a later date. A cable television channel aired a show, All-American Muslim, about Muslims in the Dearborn, Michigan area that soon became controversial. Right-wing conservatives alleged that the show was propaganda because—and here’s the rub—the show didn’t include the extremist point of view, as if the only point of view that qualifies as authentically Muslim is the extremist one. Such is the worldview of Islamophobes today. The controversy caused two corporate sponsors of the show, Lowe’s and Kayak.com, to pull their advertisements. Anti-Muslim activists led by Pamela Geller, an anti-Muslim blogger and populist demagogue, funded a campaign to place advertisements on public transportation that many interpret as being hateful and anti-Muslim. The ads read: “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” And a proposed a Islamic cultural center, to be located in downtown Manhattan and modeled after the 92nd Street Y, a Jewish cultural center in New York, was transformed by a very vocal anti-Muslim crowd into “the Ground Zero Mosque,” though it was neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero. On September 11, 2010, a large demonstration of thousands of people opposing the center was held in Lower Manhattan, with many of the demonstrators carrying signs with statements like “What Would Jesus Do? Have His Throat Slit by Mohammed,” and shouting “No Victory Mosque” in unison. Nor is this the only Islamic center in the country that has faced resistance. In fact, opposition to mosque construction has now occurred in at least half the states in the country, as reported by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Fear, Inc.

Something has changed in America. When my book was published, it was rare to see large numbers of Americans on the streets protesting Muslim Americans exercising their right to practice their religion. In the last couple of years, however, we have seen raucous anti-Muslim protests around the country, from Tennessee to New York, California to Michigan. In the minds of many, it seems, a new narrative has taken hold, one that operates more along the lines of culture than through the threat to national security. Acts of cultural and religious expression, and even just the ordinary activities of Muslim Americans, have now become suspicious on another level beyond imminent violence. Just being Muslim is now seen as a threat to the very culture of America.

And so we return to the question regarding the origin of this change. Is this new populist agitation against Muslim Americans the logical outcome of a decade-long “war on terror” that shows little sign of ending? Is it due to the dogged persistence of Orientalist clichés that never seem to die but multiply into new formulations? Is it because of a few high-profile arrests of Muslim American terrorism suspects in the United States in recent years? Is it a consequence of an American foreign policy that depends upon demonizing its overseas enemies? And has this demonization of Muslims abroad travelled back, like a chicken coming home to roost, to American Muslims? Or is the rise of populist anger at Muslim Americans pushed by a small group of right-wing ideologues who wish to goad the United States’ population to the right of the political spectrum for specific foreign policy goals—often connected to American intervention in the Muslim-majority countries and support for Israel’s policies against the Palestinians?

The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in the United States, has supplied good evidence for this last answer. In August 2011, the center published Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobic Network in America, which argues that the rise of Islamophobia in the United States is connected to “a small, tightly networked group of misinformation experts guiding an effort that reaches millions of Americans through effective advocates, media partners, and grassroots organizing.” The report actually identified the key players in this Islamophobic network, as well as the more than $40 million paid out by seven foundations over ten years to support their detestable mission. While there is likely some truth to this reason, and all of the reasons, I think many miss the bigger picture. Fear, Inc., for example, makes a convincing case, but it also assumes that people can be directed to act by the network and not by their own desires or for their own reasons.

Maybe there is another motivation. Perhaps this rising populism has less to do with Muslim Americans specifically and more to do with the changing demographics of the United States. Put another way, perhaps the anger directed at us is at least as much a symptom of a general malaise that some Americans feel about their changing fortunes and dwindling stature as it is about specific foreign policy objectives or a kind of classical anti-Muslim bigotry. The phantom fears surrounding Muslim America may be driven by an anxiety held by an older, white, and Christian America that is nervously confronting the end of its majority in American politics. And the fact that this populism rises to prominence after 2008, that is to say after the election of Barack Obama, is no coincidence. Obama is also a symbol to them of the beginning of the end of their historic privileges.

Actually, their fears are not unfounded. In 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau projected that in 2042 the population of the country would be majority minority, that is to say, white Americans would now constitute less than 50 percent of the population. (Currently minorities account for about 37 percent of the population.) In some ways, we are almost already there. The Census Bureau revealed in July 2011 that more than half of the babies born in the country belonged to current minority groups and, in October 2012, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a study showing that Protestants now account for less than half of the population—as opposed to forty years ago when they made up about two-thirds of the nation.

The racial, religious, and ethnic transformation the United States has been experiencing since the immigration laws changed in 1965, when the door was opened to non-European immigrants, is indeed profound. In some ways, this transformation is even more significant to an American identity based on whiteness than the end of slavery or the end of segregation in the United States. Those watershed moments in American history meant that the majority lost much of its ability to impose its will on a minority. This time, however, the concept of a majority in society will itself become outdated.

Even though Muslim Americans account for somewhere between 1-2 percent of the population, our oft-remarked upon and exaggerated difference from the majority matters to those who worry about the disappearance of an America they feel they know. Maybe this is why we repeatedly hear the fears that Muslims are taking over America, an impossibility considering our numbers and influence. The fact that it is far more socially acceptable to express negative opinions about Muslims than virtually any other racial, religious, or ethnic group, also suggests that much of the hostility directed at us could be a displacement for general feelings of impending usurpation from a position of privilege. What else explains the strange and enduring allegation that President Obama is actually a Muslim, a belief that has more than doubled since 2008, from 16 percent to 34 percent, among Republicans? There is almost certainly an implied racial coding going on here. It’s another way of saying that the African American Obama is not one of “us,” and “Muslim” becomes a stand-in for many kinds of otherness.

We don’t have to take the idea of a “white America” too literally here either. Race and racial thinking is the long tragedy of the American drama, and any talk of white identity may invoke older images of hoods and burning crosses. But that’s not how the current anxiety about losing a place of privilege in the nation expresses itself today. It’s more a feeling of social melancholy expressed in many ways, from anti-immigrant movements like the Minutemen to the rise of the Tea Party, and frequently channeled on Fox News. Behind the anger, one often hears a pervasive sense of loss. When a Muslim community on Staten Island wanted to build an Islamic Center in 2010, they met with opposition from their neighbors and the mournful feeling that the old America was slipping away was expressed by one protestor who said, “We just want to leave our neighborhood the way it is—Christian, Catholic.”

The Atlantic magazine recognized this cultural anxiety about the changing demography in the United States when it published an article in 2009 called “The End of White America?” The article quotes sociologist Matt Wray, who studies whiteness in America today: “Following the black-power movement, all of the other minority groups that followed took up various forms of activism, including brown power and yellow power and red power. Of course the problem is, if you try and have a ‘white power’ movement, it doesn’t sound good.” The article continues: “The result is a racial pride that dare not speak its name, and that defines itself through cultural cues instead—a suspicion of intellectual elites and city dwellers, a preference for folksiness and plainness of speech (whether real or feigned), and the association of a working-class white minority with ‘the real America.’” Anti-Muslim populist agitation—politically permissible in ways that mobilizing against other minorities simply isn’t—adopts similar characteristics that likewise work to build a culture of pride in that same white, Christian America that now feels anxiously under siege. These include suspicions of a “politically correct” elite (that is, in this case, forcing Muslims onto average Americans), a direct alignment of Christian with American values, and a sense that this populist vanguard is the last, best defense of the “real” America.

At the very fringes, an explicit “white power” movement does in fact exist in the United States, and according the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks domestic hate groups, “white power” and other right-wing extremist groups have grown “explosively” in recent years. In 2000, the SPLC monitored 602 hate groups. It now tracks 1,018, almost double the number. They expanded most quickly, the SPLC notes, after the election of Obama, and while not all of these organizations are “white power” groups, many of them have expanded their focus to include Muslims as another despised minority. In August 2012, white supremacist Wade Michael Page opened fire at a Sikh Temple, killing six, and although no definitive motive has been determined for his rampage, it’s likely that Page was motivated by his hatred of non-whites. With their distinctive style of dress and dark skins, Sikhs, of course, have suffered many anti-Muslim hate crimes in the United States since 9/11.

The Browning of America

The “white power” movement is only the most extreme example of a narrative of discomfort between an older version of America and a new multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-faith America, but the fretful sentiment is commonly found among large swaths of the population. The best evidence for this, particularly when considering attitudes toward Muslim Americans, is found in a 2011 study co-produced by the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute titled What It Means to Be an American: Attitudes in an Increasingly Diverse America Ten Years after 9/11. The study polled 2,450 adult Americans on a variety of pressing political questions surrounding immigration and identity, and the results are intriguing, particularly because the study took age, education, and political leaning into account. While it was not solely concerned with American attitudes towards Muslims, the study did ask many questions about American attitudes to Islam, and it quickly becomes obvious that suspicion of Muslims divides along political and generational lines. (The study did not quantify responses by race.)

According to the poll, older Republicans specifically, not the public generally, are the most predisposed to be suspicious. Less than half of the Republicans surveyed held favorable views of Muslims, compared with about two-thirds of the Democrats, and younger Americans (18-29 year olds) had twice as much social interaction with Muslims compared to their seniors. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans say that the values of Islam are at odds with American values and that trust in Fox News correlates highly with negative attitudes about Islam. Significantly, the number of Republicans that perceives a conflict between American values and Islam (63 percent) is in the same ballpark as Republicans who also see immigrants generally as threatening American customs and values (55 percent). Through its many questions, the poll confirms the view that those holding the most ardent anti-Muslim attitudes come mainly from a very specific, generally older, and highly conservative segment of the population, precisely the ones who would feel most threatened by the browning of America.

It may not seem so, but this is ultimately good news. For one thing, the current generation of younger Americans, the most religiously and ethnically diverse in the nation’s history, tends to be less opposed to Muslim Americans than their senior counterparts, though 23 percent of younger Americans still bewilderingly believe that American Muslims are trying to establish Sharia law in the land. While it’s always possible that people’s opinions change as they age, the overall trends in the survey strongly suggest a society of more rather than less inclusion.

More important in the short run is the recognition that we don’t have to assume a “clash of civilizations” confrontation every time a conflict with Muslim Americans arises. We can and should be thinking about politics in context, and that means thinking carefully and deeply about what the cleavages in American society currently are and from where they derive. We need not believe that large numbers of Americans are and will forever be opposed to Islam and Muslims.

But the bad news is not absent either. Anti-Muslim agitation is a political reality in the United States today, and it needs far more attention than it is currently being given. It’s also entirely reasonable, unfortunately, to expect more resentment, elevated anxiety, and the increased possibility of violence in the years to come, as the demographic changes in the country become even more evident. If and when more violence arrives, the challenge will be the same as it was with the September 11 attacks. We shouldn’t rush to judgment, we shouldn’t look for easy scapegoats, and we shouldn’t blame an entire religion or race for the actions of a few. What we need to invest in, now and in the future, are more complex ways of thinking about American society and better ways of achieving a society that provides justice for all. And when that day comes, How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?, instead of being about current affairs, will become a book about history.

Moustafa Bayoumi is a professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. He is the author of How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America, which won an American Book Award and the Arab American Book Award for Non-Fiction. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, National, New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, London Review of Books, Nation, and other publications.

A Deep, Deep Sleep

At the end of the film The Dark Knight Rises, Batman has once again saved Gotham City from ruin, but at the—ostensible—cost of his own life. “I see a beautiful city,” Police Commissioner Jim Gordon notes somberly at the funeral of Bruce Wayne, the superhero’s alter ego. “A brilliant people… rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life… It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

The eloquence is not Gordon’s own of course, but rather that of Charles Dickens. In
A Tale of Two Cities, the lines are spoken by the character Sydney Carton—like Wayne, an orphan intent on saving his city from destruction—on the eve of his own execution. It’s a hopeful denouement to Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman franchise, which started in 2005 with Batman Begins, continued with The Dark Knight in 2008, and concluded this summer with The Dark Knight Rises. Yet, Gordon’s eulogy comes tinged with weariness toward violence and the heavy price Gotham has levied to stave off its own destruction.

Nolan’s trilogy injects realism into the superhero narrative; a sense that, even though the rock ‘em, sock ‘em action is quite over the top, many of the film’s scenarios seem plausible. Indeed, 
The Dark Knight Rises is a parable that explores the fear and anxiety abroad in the land, and in turn explores fundamental social questions confronting Americans. Fear is one of America’s most obvious cultural touchstones since September 11: the widespread fear of the country’s decline, reinforced by the spectacle of mass violence. It is a social anxiety that has found most of its oxygen from tragedies (or attempted tragedies) that are related to terrorism, from 9/11 itself to the Fort Hood shooting and the attempted “underwear” bomber plot on Christmas Day, both of which took place in 2009.

The Dark Knight Rises
brilliantly contrasts the robustness of America’s response to terrorist violence with its listless approach to the social neglect and low-intensity violence eroding the modern American city. The movie unmasks American priorities, where the haunting specter of terrorist violence is the focus, at the expense of examining the more silent menaces of the nation’s violence.

Two Americas

America has so culturally internalized its absolute success and world dominance that it has paid only cursory attention to the festering social indicators that reveal a darker side of the American dream. This breed of exceptionalism, and its corollary that America had, through sheer force of will or providence, created the best of all possible nations, is part of the myth. During a showdown in The Dark Knight Rises, the movie’s primary antagonist and terrorist, Bane, tells Batman, “victory has defeated you.” In essence, too much past success in vanquishing Gotham’s threats had led to Batman’s subsequent idleness and sown the seeds for his decline. So is the case for the American republic.

The 9/11 attacks, the economic recession that began in 2008, and the devastation wrought on New York City and the eastern seaboard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, went some way toward revealing the starker picture of American weakness. But, just as America had previously overcome fascism and communism, many believe that it need only now overcome these new isms—in this moment, terrorism and ‘debt-ism’—to rid itself of another temporary sea of troubles.

Despite unrivalled power and the grandeur of its façade, America, much like the Gotham of Christopher Nolan’s Batman world, is a society of deep division. The veneer of undaunted confidence, hope, and optimism conceal the social emergencies of neglect and gloom. In
The Dark Knight Rises these festering social threats to Gotham’s order include widespread economic inequality, fading social institutions that are responsible for the caring of society’s indigent, and a temporary peacetime that has been purchased at the cost of gutting rule of law.

Nolan’s narrative of social exclusion reflects today’s America, which is witnessing, among other worrisome trends, mass incarceration, the proliferation of weapons, the increasing conglomeration of wealth and rising economic inequality, and a financial system that finds its use-value relationship to the welfare of the average American increasingly strained.

In the course of the movie, blighted pockets of urban struggle portend a looming threat in the city. As a growing army of young social outcasts gather underground to sign up to Bane’s terrorist cause, a character asks, “What kind of work can you find in the sewers?” Detective John Blake replies, “More than up here, I guess.”

Wealth inequality and the abuses of Wall Street figure strongly in the film’s imagery, and also lead to one of its drollest scenes. After Bane and his goons occupy Gotham’s stock exchange during a large-scale robbery, an incredulous day-trader tells Bane, “This is a stock exchange. There’s no money for you to steal!” Bane replies: “Really? Then why are you people here?” The line resonates in an America that was badly harmed by the excesses of Wall Street and corporate greed.

If social exclusion and poverty are seen as a problem at all in the Gotham universe, though, it is often through the vantage point of charity and individual kindness (largely by Bruce Wayne himself), not any collective, social response. Batman’s social project in
The Dark Knight Rises is less overarching than that of his foes: he’s not trying to refashion much of anything in scope, but merely attempting to keep the crumbling edifice limping along for another day. This sense of duty reads like a pessimistic reformer’s vision, but one untethered to unrealistic assumptions about revolutionary change. The American theologian and political thinker Reinhold Niebuhr once noted that the great confounding reality of humanity’s social condition is that it can “conceive self-perfection but it cannot attain it.” The point being for society that even those reformers who desire to reinvigorate our social compact and legal footing are faced with a behemoth of institutional roadblocks, perverse incentives, and decreasing channels of social and political movement.

The Superhero in the Age of Terror

In The Dark Knight Rises, the pendulum swing from life as usual to unmitigated social chaos occurs at a packed football game. A stadium full of Americans enjoys one of the most enduring and sacred social covenants remaining in today’s society: paying respect to the flag and country during the national anthem at a sporting event. That communal scene quickly turns to nightmare, however, as Bane and his conspirators blow up the field and announce their doomsday scenario for Gotham to a packed house of thoroughly terrified citizens. The scene plays on American social fears of terrorism effectively, but it is more useful as an analogy of the perpetual back-against-the wall fear that animates much of the country’s elite decision-making in the Age of Terror. What finally stirs the city out of its stupor to recognize the threat to its existence is the theatrical violence that sees Gotham being held hostage by Bane’s chaos-driven schemes.

This pervasive sense of fear facilitates police chief Jim Gordon’s bending of the rules. The previous
Dark Knight film, which took place eight years earlier, concluded with Batman intentionally taking the fall for a number of crimes actually perpetrated by the former district attorney of Gotham City, Harvey Dent, and in the process earning widespread social opprobrium. Gordon utilized that lie in order to enable the Dent Act, the uncompromising legislation granting Gotham the extraordinary powers to sweep criminals off the streets en masse. When pressed in the course of the movie about that duplicity, Gordon churns:

There’s a point, far out there when the structures fail you, and the rules aren’t weapons anymore, they’re… shackles letting the bad guy get ahead. One day… you may face such a moment of crisis. And in that moment, I hope you have a friend like I did, to plunge their hands into the filth so that you can keep yours clean!

It’s an extraordinarily telling about American policy choices post-9/11. This is the same Gordon who justifies his extralegal crime-fighting by asserting, “Gotham needed a hero.” It made for good theatrics in the movie; in reality, it makes for dangerous precedent.

This echoes another scene from
The Dark Knight, when Bruce Wayne’s chief weapons guru, Lucius Fox, empowers him with the technological know-how to essentially spy on all Gothamites at all times. Of course, this is not just a work of fiction. The notion that every social threat in the guise of terror is a ticking time bomb has enabled in America not only the comparatively innocuous Patriot Act in the 2000s, but also a vast precedence whereby the Executive Branch of the American government has established virtual carte blanche authority to undertake any policy measure it wishes so long as it is broadly construed to protect society under the duties of a commander-in-chief. This has reached the point of even allowing the assassination of American citizens without judicial approval if they are deemed accessories to terror in the global battlefield. Needless to say, such developments have severely called into question America’s institutional fealty toward its own constitutional heritage and obligations.

“Deep, Deep Sleep”

Upon being asked about the status of a young American democracy, Benjamin Franklin apocryphally noted that it was “a republic—if you can keep it.” A society—if it can be kept—seems to be the animating motivation for Bruce Wayne’s social crusade and his raison d’être for putting on the mask in Gotham City, which seems to predictably suffer from collective threat amnesia. (Honestly, how many times does a terrorist have to attack Gotham before its denizens realize there might be some endemic institutional shortcomings in town?). Likewise America has yet to be shocked out of its own slumber.

The American social compact protects fewer and fewer citizens and legal norms and values have been sacrificed for the sake of security against terror. It would be difficult to better illustrate this than in the ways America allocates resources. In the fiscal year 2013 budget, a whopping 57 percent of America’s discretionary spending is slated to go for military and defense, while a paltry 6 percent will go to education and 5 percent to housing and community. One could be forgiven if cynicism is the response to such a skewed distribution, and wonder if there’s even a point of attempting reform in failing institutions. Indeed, between the explosions and street violence bleeding throughout
The Dark Knight Rises, there remains the inescapable feeling that destruction holds the power to purify society of its sins.

Does America need a hero? Batman can counter Bane with his own brand of vigilante justice, but such punishment will not keep society’s destructive and antidemocratic impulses in check. America needs effective institutions that are accountable.

It is perhaps a not overly compelling vision that the best a society can do is to proceed with positive social progress only after unmasking the extent of its own destructive impulses. But for America it would nonetheless be an important start to take a necessary cold, hard look into the mirror and see how distorting our process of dealing with social violence has become. In a rousing crescendo ending to
Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell noted the “deep, deep sleep” of his native England with regard to the imminent spread of international fascism. “I sometimes fear that we shall never wake,” he warned, “till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.” The circumstances and threats for America in 2012 are diverse, but the sentiment is particularly instructive for what a society can do on its own terms to forestall not only exogenous threats but also the myriad internal challenges to the social order.

And still, violence in America seems undeterred; efforts to more effectively control access to weapons, for example, remain unsuccessful. In the last two years alone, America has witnessed the attempted assassination of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, a hate crime massacre committed at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and what will forever haunt the release of
The Dark Knight Rises itself, the mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, during the film’s premiere in July. On one level, American society has to take some of this with a grain of stoic acceptance—it is simply impossible to prevent all threats to society. But on another level, when American institutional failings are directly implicated in acts of social violence—and they often are—the vigilance of Americans must be unwavering. “Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again,” warned Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, and “it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.” It’s a warning that no society can ever heed with perfection. But it will at least be a start when America ends its state of denial about the causes and consequences of its home-grown violence.


Tom Kutsch
is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. He is a former assistant editor of the Middle East Channel at Foreign Policy, and a former policy analyst for the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force.

Outlook for Obamacare

As we approach the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Alma Ata Declaration calling for universal access to essential health services, stakeholders around the world are making a renewed commitment to universal health coverage. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), recently declared that universal health coverage is the best way to cement the gains made in global health. It is, she said, “the ultimate expression of fairness [and] the anchor for the work of WHO as we move forward.” The Lancet medical journal devoted its entire September 2012 issue to universal health coverage, highlighting the public health benefits of improving access to care as well as the positive economic and political implications. Researchers from the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Health program recently described universal health coverage as “the new global health agenda.” Other recent efforts—such as the work of the Joint Action and Learning Initiative on National and Global Responsibilities for Health—seek to develop a post-Millennium Development Goal framework rooted in the right to health and aimed at securing universal health coverage for all.

Universal health coverage—and its promise of access to quality care—is increasingly cast as a global social norm and moral imperative. Access to affordable health care ranks among the tenets of the right to health, which is reflected in international instruments dating back to 1946 including the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and the WHO Constitution, among others.

Many countries have long embraced the concept of universal health coverage, and the number of countries launching universal coverage programs continues to rise. The world’s twenty-five wealthiest nations (with the exception of the United States) have already adopted universal health coverage as have countries as diverse as Brazil, Ghana, Kuwait, Mexico, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand. Emerging-market countries such as China and India have signaled their intention to expand access to coverage. And others are following suit: nearly one hundred countries have begun to study the feasibility of publicly financed health programs. And, in response to a 2010 WHO report on making universal coverage a reality, more than sixty middle- and low-income countries have requested technical assistance to further their goal of universal health coverage.

Despite the global momentum for universal health coverage elsewhere and numerous attempts to implement it domestically, the United States has been unable to broadly expand access to coverage. This is largely because health care has long been a contentious political issue in the United States. Indeed, although a number of presidents and congressional leaders—including Senator Claude Pepper as early as 1943, Senator Ted Kennedy beginning in the 1960s and throughout his career, and President Bill Clinton as recently as 1993—have attempted to achieve universal coverage, these efforts ultimately failed in the face of ardent opposition from powerful special interests—physicians, the insurance industry, and other stakeholders. Without political support for broader reform, policymakers were able to make only incremental changes to health insurance coverage in the United States.

But, building on this history of incremental change, President Barack Obama signed landmark health reform legislation on March 23, 2010, thus securing a legislative achievement that had eluded many of his predecessors. The legislation—the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA)—establishes a pathway for coverage of nearly all Americans, and puts the United States’ health system closer than ever before to its industrialized peers. Before the 65
th World Health Assembly in May, the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services described the ACA as the country’s “most significant step towards universal health coverage in nearly fifty years.”

The ACA has the potential to transform the accessibility, adequacy, and affordability of health care in the United States and to add to the growing momentum for universal health coverage around the world. Yet, because the ACA adopts America’s existing federalist framework—requiring cooperation between state and federal governments—much must be done to prepare for 2014, when the ACA’s most significant reforms are due to take effect. States and the federal government must make changes to implement the ACA. There will be repercussions if state and federal regulators fail to make these changes, thereby threatening the ACA’s promise of access to coverage in the United States.

Higher Costs, Poorer Outcomes
To understand the ACA, one must first understand the challenges of the United States’ complex and costly health care system. The United States is home to the most costly health care system in the world. In 2010, over 17 percent of the nation’s total economic activity (and $8,402 per person) was spent on health care, with health care spending expected to expand to nearly one-fifth of GDP by 2020. High health care costs have broad implications for federal spending and the economy. For example, the cost of public health care programs is increasingly financially unsustainable, as the United States government is forced to spend more and more each year to provide health coverage for elderly and low-income Americans. High health care costs also affect the private sector: some argue that the costs of employer-sponsored private insurance inhibit the competitiveness of American businesses abroad.

Despite high costs, Americans have poorer health outcomes than counterparts in other industrialized nations. The United States frequently finds itself ranked among middle- and low-income countries on indicators such as infant mortality and life expectancy. These health outcomes are likely to be exacerbated as older generations retire and the prevalence of chronic diseases continues to rise.

Poor health outcomes are also linked to the fact that 15.7 percent of Americans—nearly 49 million people—are uninsured. The majority of Americans—197.3 million—purchase private health coverage through their employer. But, because many cannot afford private health insurance, their employer does not offer coverage, or they do not have access to affordable care that meets their health needs, high levels of uninsured persist. This is true even with public programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which cover an additional 99.5 million individuals.

These programs, while critical, have strict eligibility requirements and are not available to all Americans. Medicare, for example, provides coverage for individuals age 65 and older and individuals with certain disabilities; Medicaid primarily provides coverage for a different population—low-income women and children—but with eligibility rules that vary by state. Other public programs exist at the state level: for example, thirty-four states operate a high risk pool as a “last resort” for individuals with preexisting conditions. Even though these are public programs, enrollment is not without costs. Most Americans pay premiums towards their Medicare coverage and face significant out-of-pocket costs for prescription drug coverage and supplemental health insurance. And even coverage in a high risk pool has premiums that can be unaffordable for individuals with preexisting conditions.

In addition to high health costs and a high uninsured rate, the United States operates with a highly complex, federalist regulatory system that often requires cooperation between state and federal governments. Private health insurance is regulated by the federal and state governments, depending on where a consumer lives and works. This dual system of regulation is complicated and can lead to fragmented rules for insurers and confusion for consumers who do not know which rules apply to their coverage.

One example of this complex federalist regulatory system is seen in the regulation of “self-funded plans” (group health plans purchased by employers). As noted above, most Americans purchase private health coverage through their employer; among those that do, most are enrolled in self-funded plans. Under a federal law passed in 1974, these plans are exempt from many state regulatory requirements. While states regulate the insurer that sells the group coverage, state regulators do not have as much authority over these plans as they do over coverage for individuals and small businesses. Thus, the regulation of self-funded plans—and coverage for millions of Americans—is largely left to the federal government.

Because private health insurance purchased by individuals and small businesses has historically been regulated by the individual states, rules and consumer protections in these markets vary significantly across the country. For example, a consumer buying individual health insurance in one state, such as New York, may have different consumer protections than a consumer in another state, such as Maryland.

At the same time, the federal government increasingly sets standards for private health insurance by passing new laws, such as the ACA. Yet, because states remain the primary regulators of health insurance, the federal government is largely dependent on states to adopt and enforce new standards, particularly in the individual and small group markets. Although the federal government retains the ultimate authority to enforce federal law, federal officials do so only if a state informs the federal government that it is not enforcing the law or if the federal government finds that a state has failed to “substantially enforce” the law. This complicated “federalist” approach requires states to not only enforce their own laws and requirements but also gives states significant flexibility in how (and whether) they enforce minimum federal standards, with federal enforcement as a “back-up plan.”

Like private health insurance, public programs—such as Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP—are also regulated at both the federal and state level. Medicare, a program that covers older and disabled Americans, is regulated almost entirely at the federal level. In contrast, Medicaid and CHIP are regulated by the federal and state governments and—like private health insurance—rules vary dramatically from state to state. For example, under Medicaid, the federal government establishes minimum standards for whom and what must be covered, and provides significant funds to states to establish and administer Medicaid coverage. Thus, states play a critical role in setting rules for Medicaid eligibility, benefits, and enrollmen
t.

While public programs exist to protect the old, the sick, and the very poor, there are few options for lower-income Americans—such as the working poor—who often do not have access to employer-sponsored coverage. While many attempts have been made to try to secure coverage for this segment of the population, none has been successful. That is, until President Obama signed the ACA, which has been dubbed “Obamacare” by proponents and detractors alike.

The ACA has the potential to change health care in the United States and add to the growing momentum for universal health coverage around the world. Through significant changes to the regulation of private health insurance, federal subsidies for low-income workers to purchase private health insurance, a mandate that requires individuals to secure and maintain health coverage, and the expansion of the Medicaid program, an estimated thirty-two million Americans are expected to be newly insured once the ACA is fully implemented. Of these, 16 million will be eligible for coverage through the Medicaid program. With these increases in coverage, the rate of insured citizens in the United States is expected to increase from 83 percent to 94 percent. (The ACA would not cover about 23 million nonelderly residents, including about one-third of whom would be unauthorized immigrants.)

These gains, however, have been highly controversial and critics have been vocal in decrying the ACA. Opposition to the ACA has become a rallying cry for the Republican Party since the law was passed in 2010. The ACA is also opposed by a new grassroots political movement known as the Tea Party, which is largely allied with the broader Republican Party and helped overturn a Democratic Party majority in the United States House of Representatives in the country’s 2010 congressional elections. With the two chambers of Congress now divided between a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a Democratic-controlled Senate, partisanship clashes between the two chambers—and consequential legislative gridlock—have become commonplace and public approval of Congress is at record lows.

Republican critics largely argue that the ACA raises health care costs, hurts the economy, and represents a “government takeover” of the health care system. Leaders in both the Republican Party and the Tea Party movement—as well as Republican Party presidential candidate Mitt Romney—pledged to “repeal and replace” the ACA. In fact, the House of Representatives has already voted—repeatedly—to repeal all or part of the ACA. These votes were symbolic because the Democratic-controlled Senate was unlikely to approve repeal legislation, and President Obama threatened to use his veto power should such legislation pass both chambers. Not surprisingly, Obamacare became a contentious issue in the 2012 U.S. presidential election contest between Obama and Romney, underscoring the ACA’s vulnerability to political battles.

In any case, gains in coverage will not be realized immediately because the ACA is designed to be implemented in phases. In fact, many of the law’s most significant reforms will not be fully implemented until 2014, with additional changes beginning as late as 2017. In its first phase in 2010, the ACA required private insurers in the individual and small group markets to make critical changes to their insurance policies and practices by, for example, spending more on medical care than on administrative costs and profit. The law also required increased transparency through meaningful appeal processes and federal funding for consumer assistance and rate review programs.

In 2014, the ACA ushers in its most significant reforms, particularly for individuals and small businesses. The ACA prohibits insurers from denying coverage to any American including those with preexisting conditions; restricts the rates that insurers can charge for coverage; requires insurers to cover a minimum set of services known as “essential health benefits”; and limits the amount of out-of-pocket costs that consumers can be forced to pay for coverage. Because these requirements differ from current insurance rules, states that choose to adopt and enforce the ACA will likely have to pass new legislation or issue new regulations.

Also in 2014, the ACA requires the establishment of health insurance “exchanges” in each state. Exchanges are organized marketplaces designed to help individuals and small businesses shop for private health coverage and make easy comparisons among plans that meet minimum quality standards. Consistent with the federalist framework for private health insurance, exchanges can be state-based (designed and fully administered by the state), federally facilitated (designed and fully administered by the federal government), or operated through a partnership (jointly designed and administered by the state and federal government).

At the same time, the ACA introduces new requirements for individuals to obtain coverage or face a tax penalty. The use of this “individual mandate” contrasts sharply with how most nations have adopted universal health coverage. While most countries view the provision of health care as the government’s responsibility, the ACA reflects the United States’ staunch commitment to individual responsibility by placing the burden of coverage on individuals through purchase from private insurers.

The individual mandate was the subject of a Supreme Court decision in June 2012 that largely upheld the ACA as constitutional. The only area where the Supreme Court limited the ACA was with respect to Medicaid expansion. As written, the ACA required state Medicaid programs to expand coverage to all individuals with incomes under 133 percent of the federal poverty level or risk losing funding for their existing Medicaid program. The costs of covering this new population would be fully funded by the federal government through 2016 with the federal government paying for 90 percent of costs thereafter. The Supreme Court found this requirement to be unconstitutional, a decision which gives states the choice of whether to expand Medicaid coverage to this new population or not. Like the reforms for private health insurance, implementing this requirement will likely necessitate a change to existing law through new legislation or regulations for most states.

Although a step forward for millions of uninsured Americans, even ACA supporters recognize that the law builds upon an existing, highly fragmented regulatory system. Instead of introducing dramatic change by, for example, allowing Americans to purchase coverage directly from the government, or establishing a “single-payer system” (a common public pool funded by employers, employees as well as the government), the ACA largely maintains the status quo: a patchwork system of private and public insurance regulated by the federal and state governments and delivered through private organizations.

And there is no shortage of critics who claim that the ACA did not go far enough. Many have criticized the ACA for not doing enough to address the high cost of health care and instead focusing largely on how health care is delivered. Others argue that the ACA will not affect coverage for millions of Americans because the law did little to change the regulation of self-funded plans, which account for the majority of the private health insurance market in the United States and are largely unaffected by the ACA’s most significant reforms. Still others sound the alarm that the ACA will only exacerbate the country’s shortage of health care workers and do little to address the poverty that many of the newly insured face. Further reforms are likely needed to address these issues.

The Critical Role of the States
Even though President Obama signed the ACA back in 2010, key questions persist about how it will be implemented. The federal government has already issued important regulations on new private health insurance rules, which went into effect in 2010, as well as minimum standards for health insurance exchanges, and many other ACA reforms. However, federal regulators have yet to issue regulations clarifying the reforms that go into effect in 2014, how to define a package of “essential health benefits” that insurers will have to cover, or what a federally facilitated exchange will look like. Because these regulations will further define the rules by which these critical reforms will operate, federal regulators will continue to play a significant role in ACA implementation.

Yet, in the midst of uncertainty about federal requirements, states must make significant decisions that will directly affect whether the ACA fulfills its promise to expand coverage to thirty-two million Americans. For one, states can choose to adopt and enforce the ACA’s new consumer protections or allow the federal government to do so. States can also choose to establish state-based exchanges, partnership exchanges, or federally facilitated exchanges. And, following the Supreme Court’s decision, states can choose whether or not to expand their Medicaid programs.

To date, states have adopted a variety of approaches to ACA implementation, with some embracing the law and others vowing not to implement any components. The politics of the ACA notwithstanding, most state officials have approached health reform pragmatically and have taken, perhaps, more steps to implement the ACA than conventional wisdom suggests. What follows is a snapshot of state efforts to implement the ACA’s private health insurance reforms, health insurance exchanges, and Medicaid expansion.

Private Health Insurance Reforms. Although most reforms will not take effect until 2014, a set of new consumer protections—referred to as the “early market reforms”—went into effect in September 2010. These provisions, which are fairly popular, include allowing a child to remain on a parent’s health insurance plan until the age of 26 and requiring insurers to cover certain preventive services without out-of-pocket costs for consumers, among others.

In a study on how states have implemented these new requirements, researchers from Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms found that the vast majority of states and the District of Columbia took new action to require or promote compliance with these protections. Indeed, forty-nine states and the District of Columbia passed new legislation, issued a new regulation, issued new sub-regulatory guidance, or are actively reviewing insurer policy forms for compliance with these protections. These findings are supported by case studies of individual states—and a summary of actions in ten states—where regulators reported few, if any, complaints regarding the early market reforms.

States have also amended or passed new laws in response to the ACA’s requirement that states review rate increases. This is in part because states that fail to review premium increases face federal enforcement of these rules. State regulators reported that the threat of dual regulation sufficiently incentivized the state to adopt the ACA’s requirements. And a few states—such as Connecticut, Maine, and Maryland—have even begun making changes that will go into effect in 2014. These states will, for example, enforce the ACA’s requirements that insurers cover “essential health benefits” and not charge different premiums based on gender or how healthy someone is.

Even in states where the ACA is extremely unpopular, the threat of dual regulation—by both the federal and state government—has resulted in at least some implementation of the ACA. The year 2013 could be a critical one for state policymakers to decide whether to adopt and enforce the ACA’s requirements or allow the federal government to do so.

Exchanges. The ACA requires a health insurance exchange to be established in every state. An exchange is an online marketplace for individuals and small businesses to purchase health insurance and is designed to increase transparency and competition. Exchanges are not a new concept in the United States and many states have established or considered establishing exchanges prior to the ACA. States can choose to develop a state-based exchange, allow the federal government to establish a federally facilitated exchange, or partner with the federal government to operate a partnership exchange.

State exchange implementation under the ACA has been decidedly mixed. Researchers from George Washington University report that only eleven states and the District of Columbia have passed new legislation to establish an exchange while governors in two additional states—New York and Rhode Island—signed executive orders to establish an exchange for their residents. Since this report, the governor of Kentucky also signed an executive order to establish an exchange.

Even though few states have obtained legal authority to establish an exchange, most have used federal funding for exchange planning and development. To date, all but one state received a $1 million exchange planning grant with most states receiving additional funds to develop and operationalize an exchange. To date, the United States has contributed an estimated $1.78 billion towards exchange development.

Without regulations regarding what a federally facilitated exchange might look like, many states face uncertainty in making exchange decisions. This is important because states must select an exchange framework by November 16, 2012. This is the due date for states to complete a “blueprint” that outlines the state’s ability to make an exchange a reality. All eyes will be on the states during their 2013 legislative sessions to see if they establish their own exchanges or set rules on how an exchange will operate.

Medicaid. Although rendered optional by the Supreme Court’s decision, many states have already begun preparations for Medicaid expansion under the ACA. According to research from the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, forty-eight states and the District of Columbia had taken steps on at least one of five Medicaid-related actions as of May 2012. Eight states have already expanded their Medicaid programs to cover individuals with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level ahead of 2014, and twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have submitted or approved plans to upgrade their Medicaid eligibility systems.

Notwithstanding these efforts, some states have indicated that they will not participate in Medicaid expansion in 2014. Because Medicaid is expected to cover half of all newly insured Americans in 2014, state expansion will be critical in realizing the ACA’s promise of near-universal coverage. Unfortunately, it remains to be seen whether populous states with high rates of uninsured—such as Florida and Texas—will expand their Medicaid programs or not. If these two states, alone, do not expand their Medicaid programs, it will reduce the number of Americans covered by the ACA by about three million people and could have a significant impact on access to coverage.

Cause for Celebration?
Domestically, there is much uncertainty as to whether the ACA will be able to deliver on its promise of near-universal health coverage. Because states play a prominent role in the United States’ complex federalist regulatory scheme, state decision-makers have the opportunity to shape how the ACA’s reforms will be enforced, how the insurance exchanges will be run, and whether Medicaid coverage is delivered as promised. If political opposition to the ACA continues and states refuse to adopt and enforce the ACA’s requirements, some of the law’s consumer protections and its promises of access to affordable, adequate, and accountable coverage could be at risk.

Despite this uncertainty at the domestic level, the law brings the United States one step closer to the global ethic of universal health coverage. While much of the international community has been confounded by the political furor over universal health coverage in the United States, the ACA represents a remarkable shift in the way that private insurance is regulated by taking pains to enable every American—including the sick—to access coverage.

While imperfect in many ways, the ACA could generate additional momentum for improvements in universal access to coverage around the world as other countries look to the United States because of its prominent role in striving to improve global health. The law could also lend additional credibility to the United States in its leadership role at WHO and in the global health arena where it has often supported universal health coverage policies while failing to pursue these reforms on its own soil. Finally, with the aim of securing near universal health coverage for its residents, the ACA helps align American domestic policy with long-standing foreign policy and support for universal health coverage, particularly in developing countries.

What’s next for the universal health coverage movement? As more and more people obtain coverage, attention will increasingly turn to the quality and cost-effectiveness of coverage. The need to ensure cost-effective, quality care has never been more important, particularly in developing countries which increasingly face the burden of non-communicable diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and respiratory illness in addition to infectious diseases and malnutrition. This epidemiological transition—from infectious diseases to chronic diseases—will have a significant impact on health care systems around the world. Indeed, by 2020, seven out of every ten deaths in developing countries are expected to result from chronic diseases. These rapidly evolving needs suggest that quality, cost-effective coverage will be important as ever in protecting the public’s health, both in the United States and around the world.

Yet, because of the complicated political, cultural, and economic contexts within which countries operate, no single program can serve as an ideal health care model for the world. Rather, policymakers must consider how existing models for health care financing can be adapted to meet the needs of the population amidst their own social and political contexts. In this respect, the American experience with the ACA has the potential to contribute to a body of collective insights and joint learning on universal health care. As analysis of ACA implementation continues, other countries may draw upon the challenges faced in the United States in pursuing universal health care initiatives.

One thing is certain: health reform will be an ongoing process in the United States and around the world. Although the ACA will not fundamentally alter the way health care is provided in the United States and does little to address a looming health care worker shortage and the high cost of care, Obamacare has already improved access to coverage for millions of Americans and should be celebrated by proponents of universal health coverage domestically and abroad.

Katie Keith is an assistant research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms. Her work has been featured in the Washington Post, Kaiser Health News,Modern Healthcare, and other publications.

Tanya Baytor is the Global Health Law LL.M. Program Director and an adjunct professor of law at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center. She specializes in global health law and has worked on projects with the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and the InterAmerican Heart Foundation, among other organizations. 

Still Mightier Than the Sword

Click on the Flip-Flop icon on the iPhone or iPad app, POTUS Pick, a digital platform created by Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Ann Telnaes, and an image of President Barack Obama appears. It is an adroit caricature, emphasizing his brooding eyebrows and pokey ears. “We can’t just drill our way out of the problem,” we hear the president say. Suddenly Obama springs into a gymnastic flip, and intones, “I believe that we should continue to expand oil production in America.” Telnaes has scored her point: Obama is a flip-flopping president on the hotly contested issue of exploiting domestic oil deposits.

Welcome to the brave new world of political cartooning. With the decline of print media, where the art form has flourished for two and a half centuries, the future of political cartooning has been thrown into doubt. There are fewer than twenty-five full time staff editorial cartoonists working in the U.S. today, down from some three hundred as recently as 1990. But true to their combative spirit, American cartoonists are hardly going down without a fight. Growing numbers of them are finding creative ways to survive and flourish in the era of digital media, using innovative apps to display their wit, posting cartoons on new websites, and in some cases becoming gainfully employed by online publications. It may turn out that rather than killing the political cartoon by hastening the demise of the printed page, the Internet may revitalize the art form with an infusion of young, independent and more diverse voices.

Illustrated commentary is an American tradition dating back to at least 1754, when Benjamin Franklin published a wood-cut cartoon titled Join or Die in the Pennsylvania Gazette. Depicting a snake severed into eight parts representing different American colonies, it implored colonialists to unite in preparation for what the Americans called the French and Indian War. The editorial cartoonist holds an esteemed mantle in America; more vaunted than a mere satirist or illustrator. He or she is an ombudsman, holding public servants accountable for policies and gaffes. An exemplar of the craft was Thomas Nast, who launched his arrows from the pages of Harper’s Weekly in the late nineteenth century. Nast cartoons like one titled Who Stole the People’s Money famously helped bring down William M. “Boss” Tweed of the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine in New York. (Tweed purported demanded: “Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see pictures!”)

Generations of editorial cartoonists like Paul Conrad, recipient of three Pulitzer prizes while working for the Los Angeles Times, have followed in Nast’s footsteps. Conrad took on eleven American presidents, most notably excoriating President Richard Nixon for the criminal abuse of power known as the Watergate Scandal—an act that landed Conrad on Nixon’s infamous Enemies List. Long before the decline of print media, cartoonists battled for editorial space against editors fearful that their work would offend powerful interests or advertisers. “The way to succeed in this business is to play it safe, to crank out boring, derivative, redundant, often even plagiarized work,” explains syndicated cartoonist Ted Rall.

Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury has gone a long way toward opening editorial cartoon space for dissent and controversy since he first published it in 1970. A fearless master of the art, his strip is syndicated to nearly 1,400 publications globally—and available online on the Slate website and at gocomics.com. His taboo-breaking mention of drugs (“fine, uncut Turkish hashish”) in a 1972 strip ignited protest from readers of family newspapers. He was the first syndicated cartoonist to draw an openly gay character. In 2003, Trudeau drove conservatives mad with an anti-war series that incorporated the names of U.S. soldiers killed in the American invasion of Iraq into his panels. From Richard Nixon onwards, he has consistently taken on American presidents; his strip once featured a contest asking readers to submit proof of George W. Bush’s military record, service that seemed to elude official documentation. Frequently, Trudeau has even annoyed the editors who contract his strip. Nearly thirty papers refused to publish a recent Doonesbury lampoon of Republican-backed legislation that Trudeau likened to a war on women’s reproductive rights.

Some of the hardest-hitting political analysis out there can now be found on left-leaning web sites like the Daily Kos, which features comics drawn by such artists as Jen Sorensen and Matt Bors. Sorensen’s SlowPoke comics, named for her measured drawing pace, are loaded with voluminous commentary,Simpsons-esque caricatures, and cynical wit. No fan of conservatives, nonetheless one of her cartoons featured a text-intensive chart showing how the policies of “Obama at his best” are remarkably similar to “Romney at his worst.” Bors is currently experimenting with online animations, a medium for which Mark Fiore was the first cartoonist to win a Pulitzer, in 2010. Bors’ Avenging Uterus superhero, mocking some Republican politicians’ obtuse statements about rape and abortion, is bound to offend.

Carving out a niche is not an easy thing for a cartoonist in an online environment saturated with wisecracks from anyone with a blog site or a Twitter account. But illustrators like Matt Wuerker are proving up to the challenge. He draws five cartoons a week for Politico, a high-end news organization that started up as an online outlet and now also publishes a print edition. Wuerker, who was encouraged as a child by his neighbor Paul Conrad, was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Price for Editorial Cartooning for, “for his consistently fresh, funny cartoons, especially memorable for lampooning the partisan conflict that engulfed Washington,” according to the jury’s citation. “Cartoonists were creating memes before anyone had a clue what a meme was,” Wuerker wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review. “They were the original tweeters, long accustomed to boiling a thought down to 140 characters.”

Wuerker meanwhile has taken his cartoons digital with animations and even interactive games. His OBAMAgrams iPhone app enables the user to craft an animated telegram to the president in the Oval Office. Choose from a handful of actions for Obama to perform (answer the red telephone, hold a birthday cake, launch a missile, etc.), record your own dialogue, and then post it to YouTube or Facebook.

The new generation of editorial cartoonists is exploiting the advantages of speed and space afforded by the World Wide Web. Veteran illustrator Steve Brodner covered the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions like a beat reporter for the Nation, posting 152 sketches in real time on the publication’s website. Quick pencil drawings of American ‘pols’ at work, which might have languished unseen in his sketchbook, appeared instantaneously on the Nation’s Live Art Blog. Brodner, who pioneered the animated cartoon for the New Yorker online, also regularly posted one-minute animations about the 2012 election on the website of the Washington Spectator. In one video, Brodner conducts the final interview with the Romney’s dog, famed for having traveled on the roof of the family’s car during a 1983 road trip. From the elderly care home, Seamus the dog laments, “I don’t know about forgiveness, but you got to salute [Romney] if just for his nerve,” then lifts one of his hind legs next to a television set flashing the candidate’s image. Likewise, Ann Telnaes, who publishes her cartoons on the Washington Post’s website, posts up-to-the-minute sketches on her personal blog. One doodle depicted President Obama as he prepared for his debates with challenger Mitt Romney. It showed Obama downing dozens of cups of coffee—the deep shading on the mugs and on Obama’s face capturing the incumbent’s angst. When Obama was re-elected a month later, she posted a simple sketch of the president’s ebullient smile, with its toothiness taking up the entire frame.

The web’s supremely visual and interactive nature is inspiring a genre in which cartoonists take on the role of reporter-storytellers. Susie Cagle, a staff writer at the Grist, an online environmental magazine, dodged police batons and teargas canisters covering the Occupy Oakland protests in 2011. She has also filed illustrated reports from places like medical marijuana centers that typically forbid cameras from capturing images. Her scoop on a chain of faith-based crisis pregnancy centers, which allegedly dispensed bogus medical advice to young women, led the San Francisco district attorney’s office to investigate. Another notable example of the genre is the Cartoon Movement, a collaborative web platform for cartoonists from around the world. It has published long-form comic reportage on irregular Mexican immigration into the U.S., the Army of God in the Congo, and the London Olympics. A group of cartoonists traveled together to Afghanistan in 2010 for a series of illustrated dispatches on America’s longest war. But it’s not so easy to travel abroad to a conflict zone on a cartoonist’s budget. Thus, Kickstarter, an online fundraising platform, was a major source of financing for their Afghan expedition. Similarly Bors is crowdfunding his ongoing work with the Cartoon Movement; in less than a month, he exceeded his $20,000 goal, the minimum required to publish Life Begins At Incorporation, a book of his cartoons and essays.

Even in the New York Times, once dubbed the Gray Lady for its text-heavy columns and dearth of images, we are seeing a nod to digitally inspired visual narrative in the form of a weekly comic strip, called The Strip, by Brian McFadden. That McFadden, whose weekly Big Fat Whale strip appears in alternative weeklies like the Boston Phoenix, now illustrates for the Sunday Review signals a new appetite for edge, rather than a safe roundup of syndicated cartoons.

Although McFadden has landed one of the most coveted jobs in the business, he remains a freelancer—the gig’s benefits don’t include a subscription to the Times, much less benefits like healthcare. Not to worry, the Boston-based cartoonist is covered by “public option” health insurance in Massachusetts, enacted when Mitt Romney was governor of the state—a fact that McFadden has used to mercilessly skewer Romney’s opposition to Obamacare. McFadden titled his talk at the recent American Association of Editorial Cartoonists’ annual confab in September “The Future of Freelance: Brought to you by RomneyCare.” “I have health insurance thanks to Mitt Romney,” McFadden deadpanned. Introducing his slideshow, he projected his Commonwealth Care card on the wall to drive the point home, before getting into a selection of his comics.

McFadden is taking on the media as well as politicians. In a multi-panel October strip, for example, he took a swipe at journalists for becoming too obsessed with the pyrotechnics of partisan rhetoric; The Strip led with a posted sign reading: “Lost: Issues,” which were “last seen before the G.O.P. primaries.” In the following panels, a voter, whistling while walking down the street, is not fazed by the incapacity of Obama and Romney to address vexing issues like income inequality, the Syrian war, indefinite detention (“Since it’s indefinite, I can worry about that later,” says the voter), and more. In the final panel, a TV broadcaster announces, “The candidate you don’t like committed a gaffe today.” The voter cheers. It is, indeed, one of the more astute insights into the sorry state of American politics in the presidential election year of 2012.

The Cairo Review is grateful to Matt Wuerker for his permission to publish his cartoons.

Jonathan Guyer is associate editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and a Fulbright fellow researching political cartoons in Egypt. He previously served as a program associate for the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force in Washington, DC, and as assistant editor ofForeign Policy’s Middle East Channel. He has contributed to the National, Guardian, and Daily Beast. On Twitter: @mideastXmidwest.

New Orleans, Marching On

Hearing about the downsizing of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from the New York Times was the first blow. It was late May and the story’s link was passed around town, weaving its cyber-web of uncertainty and fear. The official announcement later that day by the Times-Picayune’s owner, New York-based Advance Media run by the Newhouse family, that they would be shifting focus to a digital format and only printing the paper three times a week was met with disbelief, sorrow, and a bit of hurt pride. The city has been loyal to its newspaper since 1837, plus the paper has one of the highest market penetration rates of comparable dailies and was not losing money. From a business standpoint, our loyalty was what made us vulnerable—it is easier to make this radical transition with a strong paper than a weak one. And though we’d been a pretty reliable news generator over the past several years, we were about to become the largest city in the country without a daily paper.
Over the next few months, the outrage unspooled online, at work, in bars and cafes. At the kitchen table with my morning coffee and paper, I’d read letters to the editor about how much the writer will miss his or her morning coffee and paper. Older writers complained that they didn’t use the Internet for news and would thus be shut out four days a week, and there was more than one letter about how some people’s well-trained dogs will be confused by having no paper to fetch. And of course I will miss these daily moments with my fellow New Orleanians, that durable kind of connection that comes from ritual, so different from the flickering 24/7 connectivity saturating our lives. As a region known for its rituals and traditions, we were losing another.

In response, New Orleanians did what we’d become uncommonly good at—unite over loss. There were protests, online campaigns, websites, and Facebook pages. Local business and civic leaders, politicians, celebrities, even the archbishop came together to try to convince the Newhouse family to reverse its plan or sell the Times-Picayune to a buyer committed to daily print coverage. Advance Media held firm to its preemptive strike against the widely anticipated demise of the daily paper although many insisted that even if this is the evitable path for all papers, New Orleans should’ve been the last city to have the analog rug pulled out from underneath it. What about the unwired households, disproportionately poor, which some estimate to be over 30 percent of city? Will this new development spur the urgency to get universal access to technology or will the “digital divide” become a chasm.

Of course, newspapers have to balance the commercial interests of advertisers and owners with the fostering of good journalism that serves a community, but you could almost hear the brassy thud as the weight pulled down inexorably towards the former. Tom Benson, owner of both our local football and basketball franchises and apparently the most influential of the protesters at least got the promise of a special additional edition to follow Saints games during football season, showing that our local priorities are pretty much aligned with national ones. But, almost as a point of survival in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, skepticism and resistance to change has been often tempered by pragmatism, optimism, and action. In the face of the Times-Picayune’s downsizing, online media outlets, nonprofit journalism organizations, and radio stations made plans to bolster their own voices regionally, raising the possibility that this new, more competitive dynamic could reinvigorate the local news-gathering landscape.

Recently a writer friend visiting from New York said that with the Times-Picayune’s new media focus, the conversion of most of our public schools to charters, and other forward-thinking post-Katrina initiatives plus a relatively low unemployment rate, New Orleans was moving ahead of the social curve, something we’ve rarely been accused of. I pointed out to him that in some cases we are actually being dragged ahead of the curve by forces outside of the city, some with agendas not necessarily aligned with those within the community but also ones with resources that have made our much-needed reforms a possibility. While post-Katrina recovery and advocacy for change and innovation has been largely ground-up and driven by individuals, neighborhoods, small businesses, and nonprofits, the large-scale, big-impact endeavors have been spearheaded by government, corporations, and foundations, both local and national.

The Passing of Uncle Lionel
Never in modern American history had a city been evacuated, devastated, and then rebuilt. In the early months and years, the reconstruction depended on the tandem forces of individual and governmental will; people, families had to make the decision to come back and commit to the long fight. Alongside these very personal and difficult choices, the government was working to remove debris, bring back infrastructure, public safety, and businesses. Our racially and economically diverse population complicated the recovery efforts from the beginning and the bureaucracy alone involved in such an undertaking continues to stun and baffle. As people trickled back in, there was so much doubt and anxiety and the work was so consuming, it was hard to imagine New Orleans’ future beyondcharrettes, sleek blueprints presented by urban planners at endless meetings, or cocktail talk of a dreaded evolution into a “boutique city.” Now, seven years later, I’m sometimes surprised at how well the city is doing, and other times I’m surprised at how some neighborhoods are still storm-scarred and struggling.

Even if you disagreed with the Times-Picayune—they had an unhealthy monopoly on local news and a conservative bent sometimes at odds with the Democratic-voting city—it had done some heroic reporting during Katrina, won a slew of Pulitzers, kept the city informed during the crucial first few years of the reconstruction, and stayed on top of another of our recent calamities, the BP oil spill in 2010, with an impressive combination of environmental, governmental, and business reporting. Our other chronic problems of crime, poverty, blight, corruption, broken educational and criminal justice systems, inadequate flood protection, and a deteriorating hurricane buffer (the wetlands) are long term, complex stories that require a deep knowledge of the region and the ability to analyze the information, not just report it. As a disaster-prone community in the middle of epic restoration efforts, situated in precarious urban and natural environments, we need a solid journalistic institution we can depend on to keep ourselves educated.

Being the subject of intense media attention for years can change your relationship to the news, and make you appreciate how hard it can be to get a story right. In July, there was a local outcry when National Public Radio (NPR) referred to New Orleans as a “blank slate” after Katrina, implying that young creative types from all over the country could come scribble on it and create something anew. It was an astoundingly wrong line, contradicting years of NPR’s own coverage, but it did manage to stir up the old defensive feelings about “our” culture and who has rights to it. The New Orleans brand, with its Mediterranean-African-Caribbean influenced music, food, and architecture, draws people to the city and sometimes keeps them here, but its “authenticity” has been compromised by tourism and outside interests for ages, subject to the same global and corporate infiltration as everywhere else. Jazz Fest is now officially the Louisiana Jazz and Heritage Festival Presented by Shell Oil. Mardi Gras beads and carnival throws are shipped by the container load from China. Jazz is rarely heard on Bourbon Street anymore and many of its infamous nightclubs are not only corporately owned by out-of-towners, but have been cited by the Louisiana Landmark Society as damaging their architecturally significant eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings merely by doing their raucous tourist business in them. On the more subtle higher-brow, we even have our own quality Home Box Office (HBO) series. David Simon’s post-Katrina Treme films in my neighborhood often, and it’s an odd feeling to see the light trucks and crews and messes of cables snaking into our bars and corners stores, knowing that a parallel post-storm narrative, albeit a few years behind in chronology, is being created. Lately, heading over the Judge Seeber Bridge which spans the Industrial Canal near the breach that killed hundreds in the Lower Ninth Ward, I pass a billboard for the show’s new season, its somber, sepia packaging compliments the drawbridge’s rusty trusses and makes for a strange meta-moment; our difficult reconstruction processed through the creative machinery of cable television and then advertised back to us.

Not long after the NPR story, “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, the beloved drummer for the Treme Brass Band, died at 80 from cancer. He was a thin, dapper Creole icon of New Orleans street culture—such as the second line parades comprised of brass bands followed by crowds of dancers, often sponsored by neighborhood social aid and pleasure clubs, and the jazz funerals, another public rite combining ceremony and celebration; the traditions still connected with the African American communities that spawned them. A week’s worth of tributes and parties preceded Uncle Lionel’s funeral. He was embalmed standing up, wearing a natty summer outfit, cream jacket, and beige slacks, tasseled loafers and his trademark oversized watch, leaning against a facsimile of a French Quarter lamppost. An extraordinary tableau even by New Orleans’ standards, but the family asked that pictures not be taken. This seemed a quaint request in this age of digital promiscuity, when experience is often apprehended through our personal gear, so needless to say, images of Uncle Lionel standing in state were taken, disseminated, and posted online. Twitter-sniping and earnest discussions about local traditions and the incursions of social media, including a thoughtful piece in the Times-Picayune, followed. The act of clinging to tradition while embracing the opportunities of a technology-laden future has created some dissonance, especially with the generation of early twentieth century cultural torchbearers dying and so many curious outsiders moving in.

The Renaissance Narrative
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, New Orleans is the fastest growing city in the country. We see this anecdotally around our neighborhood, the increasingly hip downtown Bywater, where our young sons like to count the colorful out-of-state license plates that keep appearing, and staying, on our street. Over the last couple of years we’ve met a lot of young people unmoored from the expensive metropolises of diminishing opportunities, many of whom came for jobs fed by those initial blasts of federal money, then stayed for the excitement of being a part of the historic rebuilding, for the novelty of the city’s culture, and also for the bar scene.

Much has been written about the New Orleans renaissance, how the frenetic activity and civic optimism of recent years have created fertile ground, almost alluvial, for new businesses, both small and big. The Wall Street Journal anointed us the number one fastest improving economy in the nation. Forbes ranked us the number one brain magnet. And TIME has written about the state’s innovative strategies to support start-ups with tax credits, highlighting that the city’s number of entrepreneurs, 410 out of 100,000 adults starting new businesses, is significantly higher than the national average of 333. In addition to aiding the proliferation of tech start-ups in the growing IT sector, tax credits have also made Louisiana’s film industry the third largest in the country behind Los Angeles and New York, with much of the magic being made in state-of-the-art sound stages in New Orleans and providing locals with well-paying jobs. Maybe the biggest game-changer is the $2 billion investment in the biomedical sector by the state and federal government, which is literally transforming downtown with the construction of two new medical facilities. After decades of malaise, we now have an opportunity to diversify our economy and wean ourselves from legacy industries such as tourism, shipping, and oil and gas to incorporate newer ones that promote a safer and more equitable city.

Less has been written about the continuing disenfranchisement of the city’s poor African American community. Currently, African Americans on average earn 50 percent less than whites in New Orleans. This is largely connected to the city’s dependence on the service industry and its low paying, dead-end jobs. If we continue to focus too much on the consumers of our culture and not support the communities who actually create the culture we’re famous for, we will be doomed to the continued and superficial parodying of our own “uniqueness” for tourists while further deepening the economic inequity of our locals. Recurring sentiments—that they weren’t wanted back after the storm or that the obstacles in returning were insurmountable and so they stayed away—linger in the midst of all of this change and possibility. Our real challenge is to bring everyone forward, together.

The city’s racial income disparity can’t be addressed without serious, sustainable reforms to our education system. In the 1960s, New Orleans’ white community handled school integration horribly, and the city has been living with the consequences ever since. Orleans Parish Schools were in steep decline for decades before Katrina damaged or destroyed almost all of its buildings and the state’s Recovery School District took over most of the city’s schools, leaving the local school board with only a handful to run. Over the last few years, most schools have been converted into independently run charters, giving us the highest percentage of charters for any city in the country, about 70 percent, and dramatically reducing the number of children who attend failing schools. National foundations and well-funded franchises like Knowledge is Power Program and Teach for America have played a large role in local reforms and depend on the energy of new college graduates from top schools, but they’ve had to work hard to prove that their organizations’ outsider status and their young teacher’s lack of experience jibes with the deep ties to place and culture valued by the families they serve. While there is widespread local support for the charter movement, the decentralization of the whole system has created confusion regarding who is accountable to whom, and the decisions made behind closed doors by people outside of the community have created mistrust about reforms.

Last year I attended a state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) meeting, which was held at the brand new and architecturally cutting edge L.B. Landry High School—made possible with some of the $1.8 billion in post-Katrina Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds designated to build new schools and renovate older ones. Over several months I’d watched its construction with a sense of wonder and unprecedented optimism for New Orleans school kids, failed by the city for so long, some of whom would soon be attending this impressive facility. At the BESE meeting, there were some community groups protesting decisions regarding charter school operators and others complaining that, despite promises, their community schools had yet to reopen after the storm. As people took the microphone in the pristine auditorium, which still retained that vague chemical smell of a newly put-together building, I heard references to slavery and the plantation, an observation that the teachers and administrators in these new charters “don’t look like us” and that their children were being recklessly experimented on. From my comfortable auditorium seat, along with the crowd of mostly white administrators, I knew that everyone in the room ostensibly wanted the same thing; quality education for our kids, but, even if these protestors were a vocal minority, our divisions are still so deep and historical that billions of dollars of school construction and infrastructure improvement is the easy part.

Equitable and quality public education is key to any city’s future, but the fact that this is a major civic conversation in New Orleans feels like a seismic shift: more than a third of our students attend private schools, three times the national average, and the neglect of public education here has been generational. Though we still perform near the bottom nationally, we’ve made marked improvements in test scores, transparency, and communication with families. The big question is how to sustain the momentum. Recently, the new state superintendent of education, John White—a former deputy chancellor of education in New York City and Teach for America administrator—strongly connected with the national reform movement, was key to pushing through Republican Governor Bobby Jindal’s new voucher legislation, which has been simultaneously lauded for getting some kids out of failing schools and criticized for its lax controls on publicly-subsidized private schools as well as eviscerating funding and support for public ones. Some of the most dramatic education reforms in the country are happening here, the results of which won’t unfurl for years. Meanwhile, the Times-Picayune has cut its state-wide kindergarten through high school coverage from four full-time and one part-time reporters down to a single reporter.

Another important reporting arena that will suffer with the paper’s downsizing, concerns reforms in our criminal justice system in general and our police department in particular. In July, in the ballroom of the white-columned, neo-classical Gallier Hall, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a consent decree between the Department of Justice and the City of New Orleans regarding our infamous police department, whose notoriety peaked with the convictions of several officers accused of murdering unarmed civilians in the chaotic days following Katrina. Over the years other cities and police departments, such as Los Angeles and Cincinnati, have been handed similar decrees, but a 115-page report issued last year found us to be the probably the worst the DOJ had ever encountered. They found dozens of problematic areas, including civil rights abuses, use of force, racial profiling, faulty investigations of domestic and sexual assault, and harassment of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community. Even the dogs in the K-9 unit were found to be out of control. Rarely in my life has the sight of an NOPD cruiser been a welcome one—my father, a former federal prosecutor had always warned us of them while we were growing up. Alongside the now well-documented dysfunction within the NOPD is the murder rate of primarily young African American males that no one can seem to control. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who invited the Justice Department to town to assess the NOPD soon after he was elected in 2010, accepted the decree and its nearly 500-point action plan without argument. There’s a lot of lengthy, expensive, soul-grinding work ahead of the city in implementing it, but by now, we are no strangers to that.

From Katrina to Isaac
In an uncanny acknowledgement of our struggles, the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, last August 29, was commemorated with another hurricane, Isaac, making landfall over the city. As late August is the height of tropical storm and hurricane season, it was not all that surprising, but its timing and aim were either politically convenient or inconvenient, depending upon which side of the aisle you favor. First, Isaac toyed with the Republican National Convention in Tampa, causing them to lose a day, then, when the storm track and news coverage shifted towards New Orleans, it reminded the country of our last Republican president’s biggest domestic fiasco, the bungled emergency response to Katrina. And, since Governor Jindal was passed over as vice presidential nominee, he got to stay home and occupy his own stage, doing one of the things he does best, as seen during the BP oil spill, the fast and furious delivery of information and statistics, strenuously trying to look both rugged and capable in a cinched belt and rolled-up shirt sleeves.

And it allowed Mayor Landrieu to do one of the things does best in front of a microphone and that is to advocate the city’s post-Katrina progress and its new $14 billion improvements to the federal flood protection system. As we readied our house for Isaac’s landfall, putting away lawn furniture and clearing our storm drains, we listened to weather updates and the mayor’s press conferences on the AM radio. One broadcast featured a breathless Landrieu who had just returned from helping the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers close “The Great Wall,” a new $1.1 billion, 1.8-mile long, 26-foot high fortification protecting the city, for the first time. Since there was no mandatory evacuation, most of us hunkered down, cooked off the food in our fridges, and hung around with our neighbors on the gusty sidewalk trying to sort out a network of resources based on who had the most food or booze or water or gas or guns.

Since Katrina, we’d learned a great deal about preparedness and the importance of communication. The day before Isaac’s landfall I happened to have a doctor’s appointment for my son and when I asked the doctor about their disaster preparedness plans he shrugged and said “No problem, we now have an out-of-state call service and an office in another parish.” Seven years ago Internet servers went underwater along with the businesses and institutions, many of which now have faraway back-up servers so there’s no break in communication or data loss. After leaving the doctor’s, I found long lines at the pharmacy because people knew to stock up on their meds and at least two people in line with me were getting valium for their dogs. This time around there was a new layer of social media to disaster planning: Twitter and Facebook posts about where to find ice, gas, and beer. Logistical preparedness is one thing, mental preparedness something else. The basic mood in the city was an industrious sort of don’t-worry-we-got-this calm, with some familiar anxiety fraying the edges.

Hurricane Isaac turned out to be a ponderous, lethargic Category One, lashing the city with wind and rain for days. But still, the federal levees around New Orleans did a good job of holding back the storm surge, our massive drainage system, which includes some of the largest pumps in the world, did a good job of keeping up with the rainfall and our 150-year-old house did a good job of not falling down. The big problem in the city turned out to be the loss of power that carried on for nearly a week while temperatures surpassed 90 degrees, a disappointment after the oft-touted new and improved post-Katrina mega grid.

Driving around one night during the blackout, I noticed that in one of the most affluent neighborhoods, Uptown, the driveways and the streets around the columned manses were not just dark, but also pretty empty of cars. Ironically, the evacuations happened after the storm in order to escape the insufferable heat and generally rank inconvenience of being in an energy-deprived subtropical city in August. A friend described it as like living inside someone’s lung. Many Uptowners, like my own middle class neighbors, were able to leave for an impromptu vacation or get hotel rooms downtown or in the French Quarter where they still had power and much coveted air-conditioning. In the poorer neighborhoods, chairs were set out on sidewalks and neutral grounds, decamped to the porches of their shotgun houses. All in all, we did okay.

Outside the city was another story. Nothing challenges urban-rural relations in south Louisiana like a severe weather event. This historical tension is not unfounded, given that during the 1927 Mississippi River flood, the elite who controlled New Orleans intentionally and probably unnecessarily inundated its country neighbors downriver in St. Bernard Parish by dynamiting their levees to save the city. After Isaac finally caught a northern current and moved on it became apparent where the most damage had occurred—the coastal parishes of Plaquemines, Lafourche, Jefferson and lower St. Bernard, St. Tammany and also the river parishes of St. John the Baptist and St. Charles, just outside city’s federal levee system.

Almost immediately, there were accusations by politicians and flooded-out citizens that some of the Army Corps of Engineers flood control improvements since Hurricane Katrina around New Orleans made things worse for other communities. Their argument being that all the water not coming into New Orleans has got to go somewhere else. In this part of the state we are all connected by a complex system of waterways—the river delta, lakes, bayous, man-made canals, and of course to the south, the ever-encroaching hurricane incubator, the Gulf of Mexico. Once you start altering and manipulating the landscape with flood controls, there will inevitably be winners and losers. Some of these communities are waiting for future flood protection to be built, while some will never get them. This is a result of what the government calls the “cost-benefit analysis” of where to concentrate its resources, i.e. what areas make economic sense to protect. It’s what others call the loss of their ancestral homes, with generations of fishermen and oystermen being washed out of the equation.

Many of these same communities were the ones most affected two years ago by the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster, which spewed hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, and before that, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Isaac managed to momentarily revivify both catastrophes by churning uncaptured BP oil back into their wetlands while pummeling them with wind, rain, and storm surges. Even as billions in BP claims are being settled, the long-term damage to the environment and the economy will take years to assess. One thing this cluster of catastrophes has done for the region is accelerate the discussion of the future of coastal communities, threatened by nature, threatened by industry and yet often dependent on both.

Soon after the hurricane passed, the Times-Picayune published a map of existing and future levees in southeast Louisiana, where Isaac’s storm surge went and how high. The graphically-rendered wall around New Orleans on the page seemed almost medieval, reinforcing the siege mentality we sometimes take towards our environment. Being such an elaborately protected citizen makes you consider what’s inside the wall, and why it’s worth protecting. In addition to all the intangibles of memory and the effort of rebuilding and the centuries of culture, there are now the billions in brand new infrastructure improvements, from sidewalks to schools to hospitals. In his pre- and post-storm press conferences Mayor Landrieu often evoked America’s investment in New Orleans, and how levee protection and rebuilding the wetlands isn’t just about us, but about protecting the interests of the whole country.

The message over the last few years about why the country should care about saving New Orleans has bordered on schizophrenic, some emphasizing our unique and exotic culture, and others insisting that we’re actually just like the rest of America. I’d posit it’s both—that the situation in New Orleans amplifies the greatest challenges and greatest strengths of the country. The All-American issues of race, class, an aging infrastructure, shifting urban landscapes, social justice, and education are not exceptional to us. And even with the rampant coast-to-coast corporate homogenization of place, the country is still a variety of built and natural environments with rich, complicated histories. Though a proud native of the city whose family goes back several generations, I cringe when I hear New Orleans referred to as “the soul of America.” I couldn’t tell you where America’s soul is, it’s too vast and transient, but it’s not ours to claim, and if we did have it we’d probably just glitter it up and sell it back to you alongside the Made-in-China trinkets in some Bourbon Street T-shirt shop.

The Soul of a Port City
Like millions of people who grew up on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from Florida to Texas, hurricanes were part of my childhood, and were scary yet fun reminders of our particular place on the planet. After the danger of Hurricane Isaac passed, my husband and I put on shrimp boots and hats and took a walk with our sons in the waning bluster, the neighborhood a post-storm compendium of vulnerability and fortitude: blighted and neglected buildings that had finally given way, National Guardsmen in their desert-mottled humvees and impressive equipment, downed oaks revealing man-sized root systems, convoys of linemen, toppled electrical poles and empty bent frames of billboards. But we mostly walked through blocks and blocks of old shotgun houses and Creole cottages still standing after a couple centuries of hurricanes with only some siding and roofing shingles missing. The more dramatic ravaging was still novel for my sons, but the familiar images of destruction gave me little spasms of post-traumatic stress disorder, the seven intervening years between Katrina and now collapsing for a few disorienting seconds.

Our sons are lucky kids, witnessing so much transformation around town. They get to see buildings imploded, moved across neighborhoods, and elevated to accommodate new Army Corp of Engineer flood maps, to thrill at the dozens of cranes and bulldozers around construction sites, to ride bikes on new sidewalks, and to enjoy brand new parks and schools. Our children will grow up with the fruits of a city that became a national, even international cause. The New Orleans of their youth hardly resembles the New Orleans of mine. Though the importance of adaptability may be one of the greatest lessons we’ve learned from near annihilation, some fear that, as the city cleans up its act and enters the twenty-first century with “best practices,” young entrepreneurs, new media, and privately run charter schools, it won’t be nearly as interesting as the gritty old twentieth century city—the one that birthed jazz, brought our cuisine and customs to international attention, and fostered poverty and racism, not to mention one of the lowest ranked school systems and highest murder rates in the country. The hope is that we can work towards being better to all of our citizens while keeping the old soul of a vibrant, sometimes messy port city.

On October 2, weeks before the presidential and local elections, a few months before we would host the Super Bowl, and with hurricane season not even over, for the first time in 175 years New Orleans no longer had a daily paper. News boxes sat empty on street corners, kitchen tables and lunch counters and bus stops were that much less cluttered, and perhaps some bewildered dogs even searched driveways for their morning quarry. No obituaries to ruminate over or letters to the editors from fellow citizens to nod or shake our heads at or paper to make coffee rings on. Another tangible loss added to the constellation of loss we’ve endured over the last several years. Another opportunity to wrangle a void, counter it, or absorb it, but regardless, move on.


Anne Gisleson
is a native Louisianan writer and editor. She has published work in the Atlantic,Believer, New Orleans Review, and Oxford American. Her writing has been featured in such anthologies as Best American Non-Required Reading. She teaches creative writing at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

Strategic Patience

He’s a diplomat’s diplomat, seen far around the globe as one of the finest of his generation. Ambassador Ryan Crocker concluded his last posting in July, as envoy to Afghanistan, capping a four-decade career. President Barack Obama awarded Crocker America’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2009, and two years later called him out of retirement  (as dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University) to dispatch him to Kabul. President George W. Bush had conferred on Crocker the rank of Career Ambassador, the highest in the U.S. Foreign Service, in 2004. The honors recognized Crocker for his handling of some of the toughest assignments in the most trying times—largely in the Islamic World.

Crocker served as ambassador in Lebanon, Kuwait, Pakistan, Syria, and, most recently, in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan. Those posts often put him in the middle of political battles over U.S. policy back in Washington. In 2002, he co-authored a memo to Secretary of State Colin Powell titled “The Perfect Storm,” which reportedly warned that a U.S. invasion of Iraq could set off internal and regional conflicts—an assessment then sharply at odds with the optimism of the war’s promoters. Crocker understood conflict zones better than most; as a political officer in Lebanon in 1983, he survived a bombing of the U.S. embassy that took sixty-three lives—and took out the entire CIA Station. Much was at stake in Crocker’s later challenges in Baghdad and Kabul: how to wind down American wars that would leave Iraq and Afghanistan intact and allow U.S. forces an honorable exit. Though out of official government service, in October he participated in so-called Track II talks in Istanbul on the Syria crisis. Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed Crocker on October 26, 2012, in New Haven, Connecticut, where he is the Kissinger Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

 

CAIRO REVIEW: Have Iraq and Afghanistan turned out to be wise wars? Is the world better off?

RYAN CROCKER: Ultimately, we don’t know. Afghanistan and its meaning will depend on whether it can stabilize into a state and society that protects the rights its citizens have gained and ensures there is no return of  the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, or their cousins. That, we can’t predict. I think Iraq is doing OK. I don’t see a back slide into civil war. I don’t see major internal upheavals. Iraq has very little history of violent sectarianism. They’ve been there, done that. As you know, there was no appetite ever for going back to it. They’ll be buffeted by the region. Just talking to some Iraqis in Istanbul, Iranians, too, for that matter, there’s a lot of worry about what regime change in Syria could mean for Iraq. They hate the Assads [the Al-Assad family dynasty that has ruled Syria since 1970]. But a radical Sunni state on their border is not very appetizing, either. Yet, I don’t think they feel they’re existentially threatened by anything that happens in Syria. And there is a certain je ne sais quoi, the bastard is finally going to get it in the neck. Iraq is Iraq. The toughest sons of bitches on the block. They will move toward increasing stability and increasing economic development. How they align themselves, I don’t think they know. Vis-à-vis the Levant, vis-à-vis the Gulf. That is still a work in progress. I certainly hope we don’t lose interest because how that comes out is pretty important to all of us, given Iraq’s post-1958 history of hostility to the U.S. and the West. 

CAIRO REVIEW: Lessons we have learned about war and diplomacy? Are there any big-picture conclusions we can draw from Iraq and Afghanistan?

RYAN CROCKER: There are. Whether we draw them or not is another matter. Interventions have consequences. They have twentieth and thirtieth order of consequences, not just second and third. The consequences can’t be predicted at the outset. No one could have predicted at the time we launched the invasion that Iraq, today, after nine and half years, would be what it is. The criticism is over poor planning, and God knows that’s justified. But there is no amount of planning that is going to prepare you for all the contingencies that come along once you are in. You’ve got to do a calculus that involves the unknown. How much “unknown” are you willing to assume for the goals you seek or the dangers you wish to avert? I don’t hear much discussion about that. A second conclusion is, look before you leap. Look at this from a regional perspective, and a local perspective. What’s the history of the region, what’s the history of the country, as it is seen in its own terms? We don’t do that very well, either. We see ourselves as liberators, we’re the anti-imperialists. That’s not how we’re seen in the region. We’re seen as the successors to the British, and the Russians, and the French. That’s life. You have got to understand it. Understand the risks you’re assuming, understand the context in which you are going to be operating. And have a set of goals and things to avoid that line up with those. In Afghanistan, I think the problem is not that we’re doing too little. I think we’re doing too much. Afghanistan for millennia has been a rural society, based on small villages, and consensus-chosen leadership of those villages. I don’t think it makes sense for us to try and do a Made-in-America complete restructuring of politics and society in that country. And what we do do, you know, talk to the villagers. What do they want, why do they want it, and how are they going to maintain it? And see if that makes sense. Countries will go on being what they have always been, in terms of political culture. And to be modest therefore in what we can assume to do, and be cautious about doing it. Overreach is a highly, highly dangerous thing. Rajiv’s book [Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan by Rajiv Chandrasekaran]—I think he misses the point. Our real mistakes are not doing large-scale projects and not getting them right, or whatnot. It is even trying in the first place. They don’t fit the landscape. [The] Kajaki [dam project] didn’t fit in the fifties. And it doesn’t fit today.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is that a prescription for isolationism?

RYAN CROCKER: My goodness, not at all. Nowhere here did I wish to suggest that we not intervene. But if we are going to intervene, we have got to be very careful in measuring our aims against risks, make our aims modest and achievable, worth the cost. And proceed accordingly. And I hope implicit in what I said is work with others, particularly in the region. We spent ’02 basically lecturing the region on how they should support us in Iraq. We didn’t listen to them. We are not good at that. Afghanistan, even more complicated, with the Pakistan factor. Understand how the Pakistanis are going to react and why. And to have a strategic dialogue that is more than the president telling [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf, “You are with us or against us.” We don’t do nuance and subtlety well. But these are nuanced and highly subtle places, and also highly dangerous places. We seem to have an oblivious ignorance of said dangers.

CAIRO REVIEW: What is America’s stature in the world after these wars?

RYAN CROCKER: Our status and weight is undiminished. Again I just heard over and over last weekend, everybody in the region is waiting to see what the outcome of the election in the U.S. is. And whoever wins, what policies are then set in motion toward the region. Are we going to follow through with a sustained policy of engagement, with resources commensurate to the task? Or are we going to do this on an ad hoc basis and try to diminish our engagement? Both our adversaries and allies are keying on us. We haven’t really lost influence and won’t unless we choose to give it away. It would require us to say, “Eh, it’s all Asia, it’s all rebalancing. We’re just going to forget about you guys.” No administration, frankly, is going to do that. Even a simplistic reading of history shows how if you don’t pay attention to them, things are going to get away from you. Or they are going to start paying attention to you in ways that don’t work well for you.

CAIRO REVIEW: Has this decade in Iraq and Afghanistan changed the way U.S. policymakers look at the American role in the world and this region? You mentioned some lessons to be learned.

RYAN CROCKER: I worry that we are not learning them terribly well this time. Washington works in real time. It is what’s going on this minute. And as you’d know better than most, the change in news cycles—there is no news cycle. It’s all instantaneous. So Washington is constantly reacting. Just watching the [Ambassdor] Chris Stevens assassination [in Libya, on September 11, 2012] was pretty discouraging but fairly educational. I kind of worry that we continue to make this up as we go along. If there has been a change, it is that we are reactive and not proactive. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. But there are a lot of questions in the region. Obama gave that Cairo speech, and then what? There wasn’t a “then what.” What are we going to do? The speech was overcome by the revolutions, and the region thinks we still don’t know what we’re going to do. But it’s very important that we figure it out. Because they see us as the indispensable player, for better or for worse.

CAIRO REVIEW: What did you mean, “educational,” referring to the killing of Ambassador Stevens?

RYAN CROCKER: The way both [political] parties responded to it. How there was no interest in establishing what may actually have happened. Done by whom, and what that told us. And then that from the Republicans: let’s just hold some hearings and have a witch hunt. And then on the part of the administration to stick to that denial of who was behind the assassination was ludicrous. They just didn’t want to say, “Oops, we didn’t have it right.” Well, nothing wrong in not having it right the first time in a complex environment. What is important is to be able to see change, acknowledge it, and adjust. Educational in the sense I don’t see either party having learned a great deal about how you deal in complex contingencies, and a lack of will to actually do that learning. I don’t want to sound overly negative, because there are some extremely good people on the ground, in Libya, for example. Chris, of course, their leader. [Chargé d’affaires] Larry Pope started out in Libya, he knows his stuff. From a variety of agencies, you get some really good people, making assessments, making recommendations. I just hope that what they are doing is taken aboard. I think we have a window right now. We have got a brilliant NEA [Near Eastern Affairs] assistant secretary in Beth Jones. I don’t know how long she’ll stay, whether she will stay into a new administration. But given the volatility and significance of events, people make a difference. She is positioned, having done a lot of hard field time, she knows the region. She now sits at a high level in Washington, and I think could get us set right. Whether she’ll have the opportunity or not, I don’t know.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is the U.S. enacting policy based on its principles, on pure realpolitik, its national interests, or on just politics and political reaction to events?

RYAN CROCKER: It’s a great question. It’s all of the above. We are virtually unique in the world in having principles that shape policy rather than simply interests. It goes back to the foundation of the Republic. Jeffersonianism. Hamiltonism. Wilsonianism. We are a land of isms as much as the Middle East. And it makes it harder. I think our approach to foreign problems and foreign opportunities, in other words to foreign policy, is always going to involve a combination of principles—call it idealism, if you will—plus pragmatics. Other countries don’t really operate that way. But we have always have and I think we always will. And it’s who we are. I would not decry it. I would try to manage it in the most rational possible way, to be sure that your principles don’t take you somewhere that your sense of reality would cause you to avoid. That’s why you have, still, the debate over Rwanda. Did we betray our principles by not intervening in Rwanda? Part of the Syria debate. And again I don’t see it as a bad thing. But like everything else, you’ve got to be smart about it. And the third point, yeah, we may be the “A City on the Hill.” But we’re also an intensely political society, and you don’t keep politics out of governance. The question is, again, how you balance and manage that third factor with the other two. Here I think many thoughtful Americans are deeply concerned. The House has always been pretty fractious. But the Senate is becoming more so over time. And an awful lot of very good congressional leaders even statesmen are just saying, “Hey, I don’t want to do this anymore,” and not running for reelection. Or in the case of [Republican senator from Indiana] Richard Lugar, getting beaten in the primary. I worry a little bit about our legislative capabilities. Because even as a lifelong member of the executive branch, the legislative interest and involvement in sound foreign policy is indispensable. Just last week I was in Boise, Idaho, for the annual Frank Church conference on international affairs. It was a moment to remember what giants we had. Frank Church, obviously. But his contemporaries: in my state of Washington, Scoop Jackson and Warren Magnuson. In Montana. These are not places you see as foreign policy drivers, but they reflected a capacity of the country to generate foreign policy leadership that we simply do not have any longer. [J. William] Fulbright coming out of Arkansas. Who knew? Yet we gave these giants a stage, and they were very effective in defending our interests. That element is kind of receding.

CAIRO REVIEW: In favor of what?

RYAN CROCKER: In favor of increasingly polarized politics. That, if you stand for this, it’s got to be wrong. In other words, we no longer have issue-based politics. It’s individual. If you are not of my party and my persuasion, I cannot work with you and will do my level best to derail whatever it is you are working on, almost without regard to what that agenda might actually be. We are a self-righting mechanism. In time, extremes like the like Tea Party are going to be if not totally rejected by the American people I think they are going to be moderated. But in the interim, we could be in for a bad patch, because Congress is simply not playing a role of advise and consent that we need.

CAIRO REVIEW: Big historical question: how do you explain the huge turmoil, so many wars, for so many years, in this region that lies between Morocco and Afghanistan?

RYAN CROCKER: It’s the arc of empire, principally the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. Middle Easterners have never quite gotten over the failure of their empire to stand against the West. And the centerpiece would be the struggle between the Ottomans and the West, 1683, the failure to take Vienna. That conflict, that contest, has never stopped for Middle Easterners. It’s a Great Game played over and over and over again, with new rules, new tactics, and new players. But the contest is what the contest was. I point out to students that you need to remember if you look at the broad sweep of geography from Morocco to Pakistan, with its multiplicity of languages and cultures, they all have one thing in common: they have all been occupied by one or more major Western powers since 1798 when Napoleon landed in Egypt. So the Middle Eastern sense is that, “Yeah, we are societies in conflict, because you keep bringing conflict to our society. You won’t leave us alone. Never mind that often we don’t want you to leave us alone. That is another story.” But again: history, history, history. As you look at Syria right now, for example. Of all of the complex, sensitive, Western-influenced areas of a complex region, Syria I think is at the top. I was going through Philip Hitti’s History of the Arabs just to see what that great man had to say about Syria. That was published in ‘37 or ’38, just before World War II. Syria referred to the entire Levant, you know? What Lebanon? What Palestine? It was all Syria. As you know, a lot of people out there still think that way. As the situation in Syria evolves, that may be a part of the inter-mixture or play. So the incredibly complex relationship between the West and the Middle East is not replicated anywhere else in the world either in terms of its longevity, its violence and its complexity. You know, any wonder that the Palestine issue has eluded solution, when it became the not twice but thrice promised land? Between the British and the French, the Balfour Declaration, Sykes-Picot, the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, all within two years, all making different undertakings to the Arabs. So to say, “Oh, get over it, it’s a new century.” Well, new century, old conflict. And I don’t think there are may out there in the region who think that it’s going to be a lot different this time as the Arab Spring plays out in terms of Western nations seeking out Western interests.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is this a “Clash of Civilizations”?

RYAN CROCKER: You could call it that. The point I was making is that in Middle Eastern eyes, the clash is precipitated by one side.

CAIRO REVIEW: Fair?

RYAN CROCKER: Well, all the games seem to be played on their court. With the exception of Al-Qaeda, the West has always been the away teams. And there again, it goes back to your earlier question, we decide to engage and intervene in these countries without making a serious effort to understand ground rules.

CAIRO REVIEW: In your long experience in this region, is the arc going in a better or worse direction?

RYAN CROCKER: The interesting thing is, for all the problems and complexities we’ve been discussing, and the opposing viewpoints and the history of conflict and turmoil, I think U.S.-Middle Eastern relations will continue to be fundamentally sound. When you look at what we’ve gone through, like Iraq. You know, that didn’t break the bowl. A lot of Arabs were mightily unhappy about it. But it didn’t lead them to say, “Well, that’s it. We’re not going to deal with you any more.” So the dialogue continues. Cooperation and coordination continue. That doesn’t mean you can take it for granted. I do believe that a very serious set of consultations is vital with regional allies and indeed adversaries as we look at Syria. Understand their perspectives, their viewpoints, what they fear, what they seek, their vision of how that might be brought about. Again, we’re better at sending than receiving. This would be a great time to do some receiving. Overall, they may be tired of us, frustrated with us, angry at us, but I think for most Middle Eastern states, the U.S. for a variety of reasons is seen as the indispensable power.

CAIRO REVIEW: Why is the United States so involved in the Middle East? What are American interests, and are they changing?

RYAN CROCKER: They certainly have changed. We became involved in the Middle East as you know to serve as a bulwark against Soviet expansion. At the behest of the British, who no longer had the means to do it. The Soviet Union is gone, but we learned immediately with its demise that we would continue to be challenged in the Middle East. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait arguably never would have happened if the Soviet Union was still in a position to exercise its influence. So the non-polar world post-Soviet Union of the Middle East, if anything poses even greater challenges. So that takes one back to your basic question: what are our interests? Arguably they are centered on stability: a stable region that does not export unrest, violence, terrorism, and that as a corollary to that, continues to be a stable and reliable supplier of hydrocarbon resources, I think becomes essential. Stability also in the sense of a U.S. interest in stable states that have their own identity, if you will. In other words, its OK for us to be deeply involved, but not others. Not that the Middle East is our backyard or playground, by any means, but when we do operate in concert with others in the region, we should do so as partners with a shared agenda, and not see the Middle East devolve again into an area of international rivalry and conflict.

CAIRO REVIEW: What’s the outlook for Afghanistan after a decade of change there? Is it better off? Can it survive the departure of NATO troops in 2014?

RYAN CROCKER: That is a story as yet untold. The elements for a stable Afghan state are very much present. They include the outcomes of conferences in Bonn, in Chicago and Tokyo, in which the international community pledged political support, military support and economic support at very substantial levels. But the question is follow through. Will the international community follow through? And will the Afghans live up to their undertakings, particularly those made in Tokyo? Unknown. Will the United States retain effective engagement even as the means for that engagement change? Also an absolutely critical and I’m afraid unresolved question. Those who have benefitted most from our presence have been women, girls, minorities, the younger generation: communities that can write a far brighter history for Afghanistan than its past. But they need our support. Not only against the Taliban resurgence, but also against reactionary elements within the country. They can’t do it without us. What we did in both Iraq and Afghanistan as you know was to establish binding strategic agreements that provided for our long-term engagement in support of development, institutional and political growth. Will we make those truly operational remains to be seen. But the structure is there, the framework is there. Whether it is Afghanistan or Iraq, the raw materials are in place for I think some very positive outcomes. But it requires political will and it requires strategic patience. And on the latter in particular, “patience” and “America” don’t fit easily together in the same sentence.

CAIRO REVIEW: If the U.S. is nation building in Afghanistan, doesn’t it make more sense for the troops to stay in Afghanistan in larger numbers?

RYAN CROCKER: A question I can’t answer. As I tried to say earlier, we have to be very judicious on the issue of nation building. You know, to attempt it without a thorough understanding of the culture and environment in which we are operating is going to be at least counterproductive, and in the case of Afghanistan I’m not sure that the villagers of Afghanistan really want their villages rebuilt and tied into a center of which they have historically been suspect. Going back to your lessons learned, I would hope that one of them is: why don’t we listen to the people of the countries with regard to what they want, what do they seek, why, how does that fit with their own visions, and then move forward. Rather than come up with grandiose schemes on our own. In terms of ongoing U.S. military presence, a couple points. First, there is nothing in any of our agreements that requires a full U.S. or international withdrawal by the end of 2014. Lisbon simply says that by the end of 2014 the Afghans will be fully responsible for security in their country. So I don’t rule out that there will be a request for assistance in certain areas where they are not going to have developed their own capabilities by that time. Then we’ll have to decide how much will we want to meet. But I don’t think they are going to be doing nation building. Talking about air defense, special enablers, special operating capabilities, that kind of thing. Important nonetheless symbolically, and earnest on our commitment to stay engaged. And then the other point I would make, a final point, the graveyard of empires: don’t overstay your welcome. The green-on-blue incidents [of Afghan servicemen killing U.S. counterparts] notwithstanding, I don’t think that’s what that means. I think both governments have taken—touch wood—effective means to get control of those. But as I look at Afghanistan, I see a certain dissonance, if you will, between an increasingly vibrant, resilient Afghan society and a very large foreign troop presence. I don’t think that’s carried to the point of significant friction but again we want to be very careful with it. I would just make a point here too. The Chicago summit and the pledge for long-term sustainment of roughly a quarter of a million set of security forces. Turn again to history. Afghanistan did not descend into civil war when the Soviets withdrew in ’89. It descended into civil war when the money for the Afghan security forces dried up.  You know, no paycheck, going home. The Afghans are good fighters. There is a strong streak of nationalism there. If the money continues to flow, I would have every reason for confidence in the ability of Afghan forces on their own or nearly on their own to be able to maintain order and stability because they have done it before.

CAIRO REVIEW: The killing of Osama Bin Laden: how much of a blow to Al-Qaeda? How much of a threat does it still pose?

RYAN CROCKER: A substantial victory. I think perhaps more substantial to the American people than it was a defeat to Al-Qaeda. Bin Laden as we saw had been playing for some years a minimal operational role, for security reasons. Let’s face it, the AfPak border area, while it will require constant attention to ensure it doesn’t harbor Bin Laden-like capabilities, given that Al-Qaeda is so heavily franchised Al-Qaeda of the Maghreb, Al-Qaeda the Arabian Peninsula, and so forth, operate on their own. They’re the ones that really worry me. Chris’s assassination at the hands of Al-Qaeda of the Arab Maghreb is a case in point. Libya was a conduit for years for fighters for Al-Qaeda [from] Libya, Egypt, Syria, into Iraq, and also into AfPak. Now that you’ve got the fundamental disorder that pervades Libya, this is happy hunting for Al-Qaeda. As it was in Yemen, where they almost lost the state, as it may yet be in Egypt. I wonder what [Bin Laden successor] Ayman El-Zawahiri is thinking. Is this his moment to reconstitute Al-Gamaat Al-Islamiyeh? They have been through some hard times but  they have never given up, never lost their vision. We are looking at a set of circumstances that is a combination of the Arab Spring itself and questions about our staying power that could be combining to make Al-Qaeda a really significant threat to us, and the West, for reasons that have little to do with Osama Bin Laden.

CAIRO REVIEW: That doesn’t sound like the U.S. has “drained the swamp” very much in the last ten years.

RYAN CROCKER: As I look at the area outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan, I think that the water level is rising. The Saudis had of course significant success against Al-Qaeda, a very concerted security effort. And they arrested and killed a large number. But basically they have displaced them into Yemen, which has far weaker abilities to control then. I think in North Africa Al-Qaeda has really got some opportunities. In Afghanistan or Pakistan, the border area, the gains have been substantial from our perspective, and continue to be, because that’s one area where the Pakistanis continue their cooperation. But I would be as bold to say that that is no longer the main front. It could be again, if they they can get it back, if we lose interest and resolve and patience and go home early. If they think they can retake Afghanistan, they would in a heartbeat. For lots of reasons that may be the most amenable venue for their interests.

CAIRO REVIEW: Tell me about the “Perfect Storm” paper.

RYAN CROCKER: One classified document that actually wasn’t leaked, or at least handed over in toto. First, I was not the author. It was done by members of my staff. Second, the purpose was not to be crystal ball-like in our predictions. It was simply to be illustrative. It goes back to my original points: if you are contemplating an armed intervention in somebody else’s part of the world, you better have a clear-eyed view of the threats and risks. An exercise we never really went through in Iraq. It was all just simply going to be a sun-dappled-up land once [Iraqi ruler] Saddam [Hussein] was gone. That was the point of the paper, to try to provoke some senior-level thinking about, well, what is going to happen? What are the likely outcomes? How can we shape, counter and guide them? And so forth.

CAIRO REVIEW: Did it have any influence?

RYAN CROCKER: I don’t think so.

CAIRO REVIEW: Did anybody read it?

RYAN CROCKER: I think the secretary of state [Colin Powell] read it, the deputy secretary of state. You remember the dynamics at the time. Their views were not warmly embraced elsewhere in the administration.

CAIRO REVIEW: On Iraq, I see your cautious optimism, yet we are seeing authoritarian tendencies in the Nouri Al-Maliki government, and solidification of Iranian influence, Shiite dominance. How serious is this for the U.S.?

RYAN CROCKER: The recipe is for more rather than less engagement. Use the strategic framework agreement to solidify an Iraqi-U.S. partnership that develops the capacities that Maliki and others have said they want developed, particularly in education. The best bulwark for a long-term future in the region that is agreeable to U.S. interests is precisely that, a well-educated population. That is a Maliki priority. It is a key part of our agreement. Let’s get on with it. Let us not obsess over, “Oh my God, they’re going this way, they’re going to do that, they’re close to Iranians!” Embrace ’em. Is Maliki authoritarian? Yes. All Iraqi rulers are authoritarian and always have been. You don’t last in Iraq without the ability to wield authority and sometimes to do so in a pretty ruthless manner. We need to encourage the development of institutions of check and balance. But also understand that Iraqis including Maliki know their own world best. Maliki set up those special operations commands that reported directly to him and bypassed the general staff and the minister of defense because of his reading of Iraqi history. You know, that if the ruler of the country has not got a firm grip on the armed forces at all times, sooner or later they are going to turn against him, as Abdel Karim Qassem did in ‘58 against the monarchy. Authoritarianism doesn’t fit well into our basket of ideals, but in certain cultures at certain times it may be essential to avoid something far worse. In terms of Iran, no question the Iranians have influence, and will do their best to increase it. The best antidote is not for us to issue press statements decrying it. It’s to beat something with something better. And we can be better in Iraq for Iraqis than the Iranians are. Plus we don’t start from their huge handicap of being Persian and having fought the horrific eight-year Iran-Iraq War. You know this, many others don’t: there’s an assumption that because they are all Shiites together, they are all going to make common cause together. That ignores fundamental historical differences between Arabs and Persians over the centuries. And it certainly ignores the enormous impact of the Iran-Iraq War. That will live just as the Great War has done for Western Europeans in the historical memory forever. If you want to know where [Iranian military commander] Qassem Suleimani comes from, it is worth bearing in mind he was in that war for all eight years of it, and for seven years he was in combat. For him, like a lot of other Iranians, like many Iraqis, ‘88 was a truce. The war is still there.

CAIRO REVIEW: How do you read Iran’s nuclear intentions? Hell-bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon? Amenable to negotiations?

RYAN CROCKER: They are Iranians, so they will keep as many options open as long as they possibly can. And in the process, will continue the myriad steps necessary to produce a workable nuclear weapon. I think, to do otherwise, they would have to be persuaded that the costs were simply unbearable. I’m not sure that that’s what they believe. I’m not sure they believe they would pay an insupportable price. They have had three decades to contemplate [the 1981 Israeli attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor] Osirak next door. And we already know they have constructed hardened facilities and redundant facilities. And they also know we’re not and the Israelis are not going to invade them. You’re talking about an air assault or an air-mobile assault. The whole intention of their program is to be survivable. Then they have the sympathy of the world. They have a nuclear program. We will have taken our best shot literally. And they are in a pretty good place. So unless we can persuade them otherwise, I’m not sure they see a downside.

CAIRO REVIEW: You think they are pursuing a nuclear weapon?

RYAN CROCKER: I do. Look, Iran would pursue a nuclear weapon if the Shah had never fallen. It is consistent with how they see themselves in the region as a great power. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. India has nuclear weapons. It goes with power. Whoever rules in Tehran is going to be seeking nuclear weapons.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is that an apocalyptic danger to the world?

RYAN CROCKER: Some of the rhetoric may make it apocalyptic. We have been through this before. The Iranians, if they develop a nuclear weapon, are not—I would not be totally certain—then going to use it to attack or threaten neighbors.

CAIRO REVIEW: They are not?

RYAN CROCKER: I don’t think so. The historical acquisition of nuclear capabilities by non-NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] states has never run that way. They’ve got it. Everybody will know they have it. It will heighten their conventional strength. But I don’t think you’ll hear a whisper of actual nuclear use, let alone actual nuclear use. I’m not trying to downplay it. I think it’s a fact and it is supported by recent history. The question is more the reactions. I have noticed that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has backed away lately, which is a good thing. Nor does it mean we should be passive. If we can develop computer viruses, and other means of going after them, by all means we should.

CAIRO REVIEW: What about negotiations?

RYAN CROCKER: Let’s talk away. What I think we should be talking about isn’t their nuclear program. We should try to explore areas where we may have some common interests like Afghanistan, and in a more imaginative way, Syria. The Iranians don’t want to see disorder, chaos and the loss of their only Arab ally. Well, we don’t want to see disorder and chaos. We’re fine with the loss of the ally. But they are still on the agenda to be discussed. I don’t think we can roll it into a big ball like the Iranians suggest and talk about everything. Let’s start with some stuff where we might make some progress and see if that builds some momentum for other steps.

CAIRO REVIEW: Wouldn’t it take a bigger strategic deal to get the Iranians to back off the weapon?

RYAN CROCKER: Yeah, but like a lot of strategic deals you don’t get them in one fell swoop. You’d have to build this one piece by piece.

CAIRO REVIEW: See any sign of that?

RYAN CROCKER: I’d like to think that just as we did in ’01-‘02, we could do something with respect to Afghanistan. Particularly with the elections approaching in 2014. Who is going to be postured how? And can we recreate some of the common purpose, that allowed us to reduce the influence of [Afghan warlords Abdul Rashid] Dostum, Ismail Khan, and others? I think the potential is there. Whether the political will is, in their government, or indeed any longer in our own, I’m not sure. 

CAIRO REVIEW: We often hear about obstacles in Tehran, but is the U.S. really capable politically to seriously engage Iran?

RYAN CROCKER: Well, that’s been untested. The Iranians have not picked up our invitation for talks, which I extended when I was there. And it was backed by [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai. They just said, “Eh.” So right now they are the rejectionists. And it remains untested whether our political system in its current form would support serious negotiations. 

CAIRO REVIEW: I’m not just referring to Afghanistan, but to the nuclear negotiations, the P5+1—the five Permanent Members plus Germany.

RYAN CROCKER: If there is a nuclear deal to be had, it isn’t going to be had to the P5+1. It is really the wrong way about this. It is increasing the Iranian sense of their own importance by saying that the entire P5 is going to engage you on this. I’d move to a bilateral agenda with us, supported in some areas by other actors, and see if you can score some successes, some areas of agreement. And then come to an eventual nuclear understanding. My own view is that the big debate there isn’t on this at all. It’s on the post-NPT world. The NPT is vital, but it is not sufficient. It has not stopped countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. It does leave them outside NPT safeguards, which is not a good thing. I think our nuclear discussion with Iran might have to rope in India and Pakistan as well. About not a new regime, but an addition to the old regime to accommodate new nuclear states who are prepared to sign up to this or that commitment. 

CAIRO REVIEW: Are you concerned about an Israeli attack on Iran?

RYAN CROCKER: It is hard for me to read. I would hope that that is a saber they rattle but have no intention of actually using, because I don’t think it will work. I think they don’t think it will work. The kind of softening of the rhetoric may indicate a rethinking of that. I had a senior Israeli official tell me some time ago, “When you look at options for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, two of them begin with an A and neither of them look good: attack and appeasement.” So you keep the attack option on the table, make them nervous, keep fiddling around with it, and engage them in a negotiated settlement, while making life as hard as you can for them in actually gaining the capability. Good computer viruses, whatever.

CAIRO REVIEW: Eventually, there will have to be a war to bring about that high cost you talked about?

RYAN CROCKER: I don’t think war is either inevitable, and certainly not desirable. Messy long-term ways of dealing with regional challenges are not exactly new. Sometimes your best investment is just buying time.

CAIRO REVIEW: Could the U.S. prevent an Israeli attack?

RYAN CROCKER: I don’t know that much about the dynamic in the relationship right now. If they perceive that they face an existential national security threat they are going to do what they want. I don’t know how they down deep perceive this.

CAIRO REVIEW: How do you project the impact on the region of an attack on Iran?

RYAN CROCKER: I’m not sure I see an apocalyptic scenario. I see a scenario in which we lose. We use military force. We did not succeed in ending their nuclear program. So we have looked impotent. We have shot our bolt. They will gain a certain sympathy in the region and the world, and will have no deterrence in developing a nuclear weapon. Is that apocalyptic? I don’t really think so. Because I don’t think they are going to use it.

CAIRO REVIEW: You don’t see a scenario for a U.S. attack, do you?

RYAN CROCKER: You get off into the never-never world of almost political fantasy. No, I don’t think we’re contemplating an attack. Does that mean we never would. No. But again you’re getting so far out into speculation it starts to lose meaning, I think. 

CAIRO REVIEW: Is the Arab Spring a positive development, or could the region disintegrate further?

RYAN CROCKER: Too soon to tell. This is Act 1, Scene 1, almost two years into it. But the development of new political societies is complex and lengthy. I worry about the same things in counties of the Arab Spring that I do elsewhere. The institutional basis for viable democracy is exceedingly weak. You don’t get viable democracies just because that’s a really noble aspiration. You have got to have the structures in place to support, underpin and guarantee it. And they are not there. This is going to be hard, it’s going to take a long time, and the outcome is to say the least uncertain. I can’t say whether it’s a good or a bad thing. Generally speaking, societies that move on from authoritarian leaders to something else you can argue are moving in the right direction. But, again, not so clear. You remember why that fruit vendor set himself on fire? In part it was a total lack of economic opportunity. Well, the economies of these countries have just gotten worse. How long can Egypt sustain a tourist industry that isn’t contributing to the economy? I don’t know, but probably not forever. Ditto in Tunisia. So, way more questions about the impact and direction of the Arab Spring than I’ve got answered. We need to understand that. There is nothing easy about this. It is all complicated. There are risks foreseen and as yet unforeseeable. It will take a lot of time, and again strategic patience by the West, to seek to shape events in a positive direction.

CAIRO REVIEW: How is Syria going to play out?

RYAN CROCKER: We’re not in a good place. The divisions within the international community of course are pronounced, between Russia and China and other members of the [UN] Security Council. And they are badly divided in the region. With the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] led by doughty little Qatar saying it’s time to get on with the war, and the only thing holding us back are the American elections and lack of American will. The way forward I think is a process of analysis and deep consultation. You know, who are those guys? Who are the resistance? What are their aims? Agendas? Who supports them? Why? I think we’re working hard on that. I’m not sure we have got the answers, but that’s where you have to begin. Only then can you have a discussion about post-Assad alternatives that is based on reality. I don’t think we’re there yet, in part not through our own failings but because these groups don’t know who they are. It is not a surprise than in Assad’s Syria Nelson Mandelas did not emerge. We have got to figure out who we are dealing with and then make common cause regionally and internationally in how we deal. I think that’s absolutely key. 

CAIRO REVIEW: Israel-Palestine now: irrelevant, or crucial to getting all these other things right?

RYAN CROCKER: Somewhere in between. It will always be relevant, and it will always be important, in its own terms, but also because it offers weapons and levers to regional actors who would use the peace process or lack thereof to advance their own agendas. This is not a favorable moment for Arab-Israeli peace. But that doesn’t mean you can back away from it entirely. One of the interesting concepts that I heard in Istanbul was the absence of Israeli-Palestinian progress plus the challenges of the Arab Spring may make the old notion of a Jordanian-Palestinian union more palatable to both countries than it has previously been. Interesting idea.

CAIRO REVIEW: The U.S. has a responsibility as a sponsor of the peace process, yet we have not seen much American diplomacy since 2001.

RYAN CROCKER: You saw an effort with [Special Envoy George] Mitchell’s appointment. I’m not sure I see it as a failing of the U.S. as much as a reflection that the political realities are simply not supportive of advancement let alone a breakthrough in this process. I do think though that we need to be more visible, more engaged, than we have been of late. We got burned by saying and doing some not horribly bright things. That doesn’t mean we can afford to back away from it completely, because we can’t. I’d have to say, working in the region for all these years, it is hard to remember a time when the Palestinian-Israeli issue has been less center stage than it is right now.

CAIRO REVIEW: Some think that the ‘two-state solution’ window is closed.

RYAN CROCKER: It’s hard to say. If it’s closed, what’s open? If you say nothing is open, then you are probably going to force some kind of confrontation.

Cairo: A Memoir

Raised in France from early childhood and educated in the republic’s public schools, including the Alliance Israelite Universelle, my father naturally supported the country’s concept of “laïcité,” (secularism), the complete integration of Jewish citizens into their homeland, and was therefore opposed to all forms of Jewish nationalism. Although he was an atheist, or perhaps a deist—I never knew precisely—he nonetheless remained committed to the traditions of Judaism. He celebrated all the major holidays—Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—despite allowing generous portions of liturgical prayers to be skipped. He didn’t object, except to taunt me playfully, when during my teenage identity crisis I decided to take evening courses at a synagogue to study the sacred texts like the Talmud as the precursor to a rabbinical career. Then I lost my faith.

Nor did he object to my decision to join Hashomer Hatzair (literally, “The Young Guard”), the Zionist youth movement with Marxist influences. I suspect that like me, my father was ignorant of nearly everything about Zionism and Marxism, two ideologies completely absent from his intellectual universe. I left the movement a year later, disappointed by its attempt to reconcile Jewish nationalism with international Marxism.

Every five years, my father would save up enough money for us to take vacations in Lebanon where to our delight, the abundance of water, the exuberance of its flora, and the bounty of its orchards contrasted with arid and dry Egypt. From Cairo, a ramshackle train from a bygone era, with deafening clatter of iron, would slowly bring us across the Sinai. A bus then drove us to Tel Aviv where we visited my brother who’d emigrated to Palestine before World War II, less by idealism than a taste for adventure. Nothing else drew me to the Holy Land, where we spent only two or three days before taking three months of vacation in Lebanon.

We were well integrated into Egyptian society where Jews held a privileged position. In the center of Cairo, the business districts would fall into a deep lethargy on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many of the department stores, boutiques, banks, companies as well as the Stock Exchange stayed closed. Cafes, restaurants and cinemas operated at a slower pace. All one needed to do was walk down the main streets of the capital to see the glittering names of the upscale department stores like Cicurel, Chemla, Gattegno, Orosdi Back, Adès, Oreco, Le Salon Vert, La Petite Reine—all belonging to rich Sephardic families. There was only one other department store comparable to them, Sednaoui, which was owned by Christians of the same name who’d emigrated from Syria.

Leading the Jewish community was Haim Nahum Effendi, Egypt’s chief rabbi, from 1925 to 1960. He was a senator and member of the royal academy, a position that was worth his exceptional erudition. An accomplished polyglot, he spoke as well in literary Arabic as he did in Hebrew, Turkish, French and English. Thanks to diplomatic missions he undertook for the sultan of the Ottoman Empire until 1920, at a time when he occupied the functions of chief rabbi for the entire empire, he maintained close relations with European political circles—an advantage he used while serving the Egyptian authorities and the Jewish community. A product of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris where he spent his early years, he shared with most Egyptian Jews “integrationist” or assimilationist convictions, and with them, their reticence over emigration (Aliyah) to Palestine. For a long time, Egyptian Jews confused Zionism with philanthropy, believing that their small donations helped Jews fleeing European persecution, much to the chagrin of Zionist movement leaders.

Furthermore, the notable figures of the community, led by the chief rabbi, began to slowly become aware that the Palestine conflict could have serious consequences for Jews in a country where the majority of the population could only be hostile to the Zionist project.  Thus their constant need to proclaim themselves loud and clear as “both Jews and patriotic Egyptians.” It was a declaration of faith that earned them the support and protection of the palace and the government and even the goodwill of the Muslim elite, before the escalation of the Judeo-Palestinian conflict. Egyptians naturally felt a unique sympathy toward Palestinians, their neighbors who had been stripped of a part of their territory by a minority of foreign colonialists.


Interviewing Hassan El-Banna

Before his assassination on February 12, 1949, I had the opportunity to interview Hassan El-Banna for the Egyptian Gazette, an English-language daily newspaper where I worked as a journalist. The supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood had led the campaign against the creation of a Jewish state and provoked in me a feeling of indescribable anxiety.

Stocky and wearing a loose red tunic for the occasion rather than a suit, his face framed by a messy black necklace of a beard, he received his guest with a clerical smoothness, staring at him with a piercing gaze. He was clearly trying to seduce his interlocutor using a playful sort of cunning as well as flowery language and well-structured analyses supported with a host of quotes and apparently inexhaustible anecdotes. He seemed indifferent to the fact that I was Jewish.

A brilliant and passionate orator, his demagoguery, with its prophetic overtones, made large crowds go wild with enthusiasm. He believed that only Islam could cure the ills that the people suffered from. His main targets were, aside from Zionism, British colonialism, the “moral turpitude” of Westerners, “infidels” who held all the economic power along with the wealthy, who he denounced for their selfishness and greed. He unforgivingly condemned socialism and communism as foreign doctrines that were incompatible with the message of the Prophet. He attracted admirers and supporters thanks to the many networks he controlled around the country and the social, athletic and charitable associations, as well as the free clinics and schools that he had built—thus overcoming the failures of the state while at the same time using them as a cover for plots and terrorist operations.  Two years after our interview, government agents killed El-Banna as revenge for the assassination of Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmy Nokrashy Pasha by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the years that followed the second World War, the national movement’s priority wasn’t the fight against Zionism, but rather resistance to British occupation, against which activists from the leftist Wafd party, along with Communists, organized public meetings, sit-ins and protests.

I participated in one of them in February 1946, the largest ever organized by the National Committee of Workers and Students. It led to a bloodbath. Faced with a sea of tightly packed and boisterous protesters rushing onto the Ismailia Square (which became Tahrir Square after the Nasserist Revolution) where the British military barracks were, security forces opened fire on the crowd, killing some twenty people and wounded hundreds more. A bullet ended the life of a young student marching beside me. The scene of this massacre would burn itself into my memory. The prime minister, Ismail Sedki Pasha, who also happened to be a major figure in the business world, had dozens of Wafdist and communist figures arrested and banned from the clubs and publications they led. However, the event gave powerful momentum to the national movement, which, six years later, brought about the fall of the monarchy— a prelude to the evacuation of the British bases in the Suez Canal Zone.


Zionists and Communists

The political climate further deteriorated beginning in November 1947 when the United Nations General Assembly decreed the partition of Palestine into two states—one Jewish, the other Palestinian Arab. The decision would cause a surge in anger and mark the beginning of a Judeophobic campaign. The press, which until then had exercised restraint, began attacking Jews, accusing them of being both “Zionists” and “communists.” The creation of the State of Israel signaled the divorce between Jews and their compatriots around the Arab world. Zionist officials saw it as confirmation of their argument that non-Muslim minorities had no future in Islamic countries. Emigration to Israel surged once again. And yet my family like many others decided not to leave the country, still holding out hope for a return to normal.

The government of King Farouk exploited the situation to discredit the Marxists, calling them “Zionists in disguise.” Beyond the Jewish background of many communist leaders, their decision to support the partition of Palestine made them highly suspect; they had thus implicitly endorsed the objective of the Zionist movement, whereas for years they had considered it “reactionary” and “racist.” In fact, Egyptian communists, like most of their comrades around the Arab world, supported the decision of the Soviet Union to vote in the United Nations General Assembly in favor of partition and thus the creation of a Jewish state. This blind conformity would cost them for years, despite remaining deeply hostile to Zionist ideology. The Jewish Anti-Zionist League, for example, was dissolved by Egyptian Authorities, its leaders arrested and its publications seized. An offshoot of a communist organization, the league also had defended the creation of a Jewish state.

The reaction by authorities was even more brutal during the invasion of Israel by the Arab armies. On May 15, 1948, hundreds of supposed “communists,” and “Zionists” were held in two separate internment camps near Cairo. Many among the communist leadership, both foreigners and Egyptian citizens, were expelled from the country. They had more luck than their Iraqi counterparts, though, where three were hanged in Baghdad on the pretense that they supported the partition of Palestine. Eventually, I too was arrested, and subject to intense questioning about my political positions before being released on bail a month later while the pre-trial investigation continued. Given that martial law was in place, my imprisonment could have lasted indefinitely. Under threat of a double conviction for Zionism and communism, unemployed and without financial resources, I decided to leave Egypt. The police did not prevent my departure, but would only issue me an “exit without return” visa. Unwanted by my native land, deprived of my family, my friends and acquaintances, I left with two feelings: the sadness of emigrating and the joy at moving to France, the country so loved by my father.  There a second life awaited me, one full of so many surprises. Several months later, on July 23, 1952, the “Free Officers” led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized power and one year after that, founded the republic.


Return to Cairo

Threatened with prosecution for “Zionist and communist activities” and expelled from Egypt, my exile lasted twelve years, and was the source of the surreal aspect of the welcome reserved for me upon my arrival at the Cairo airport. Accompanied by my wife Rosy, a news photographer, we were received by a senior official from the Information Ministry with unusual consideration, driven in an official limousine to a grand Cairo hotel where a suite had been reserved for us. A large flower arrangement was there, with a card indicating that “the president of the republic” welcomed us. All these honors were certainly enough to surprise this former persona non grata.

The genesis of these events took place in Paris several months earlier, in the spring of 1963. I was the editor of the Middle East section for Le Monde newspaper, a position that had been bestowed on me in the face of all logic, since at the time all Arab states refused to issue entry visas to Jews. The newspaper’s management trusted me no doubt due to my previous reporting in sub-Saharan Africa, at a time when it was not easy to work there since the decolonization movement was in full swing. Certainly my knowledge of Arabic and English could also have explained their odd choice, but that wasn’t enough to open the doors to me in most of the countries of the region. My investigations in Israel, Iran and Turkey may have suggested an ability to knock down walls of the “Arab fortress,” but I had no illusions, given the serious hostility that Israel provoked in the region. I even thought of resigning from the position to devote myself to another region where my background would be of no consequence.

A ray of hope would shine three years later when an Egyptian journalist visiting Paris asked to meet with me. I knew Loutfi El-Kholy by reputation—he was a talented columnist at the daily paper Al-Ahram, an essayist, playwright, and leftist. Over the course of the lunch I had invited him to, he made me a proposition that would lead to a major turning point in my professional life. He told me that he had been given the task by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram and friend and confidante of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, of extending an invitation to me to visit Egypt. All of its amenities would be at my disposal, he assured me, to carry out an investigation, and I would be free to travel wherever I wished and speak to whomever I wished, even members of the opposition, and free to publish my writings with no censorship of any kind. An entry visa would be immediately issued to me for whatever length of time I needed—the very privileges that the Nasserist Egypt of the time virtually never granted to foreign journalists. Made aware of the offer, the management of Le Monde, authorized me to accept the invitation on one condition: all costs of the trip would be paid for by Le Monde, and not the Egyptian paper.

Several decades passed before I was able to penetrate the mystery around the odd invitation from the editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram. Speaking with several confidantes of Nasser after his death, in particularly his chief of staff Sami Charaf, I discovered that political calculation had led to the decision to open Egypt to a special correspondent from Le Monde. With Algeria having gained independence the previous year, Egypt and France had renewed diplomatic relations; Nasser wanted to end the years of quarreling and confrontation by inaugurating a relationship built on trust with the government of President Charles de Gaulle, who he greatly admired, something that would prove reciprocal. And all the more so because he believed, not without reason, that Paris was offering newly sovereign countries a third way, allowing for an escape from Soviet-American binary system.

The persistent hostility between the two countries had to be cleared up as much as possible using various means, including French media. Only Le Monde, considered at the time to be pro-Gaullist and a supporter of the Third World, whose authority and influence went well beyond France’s borders, had the potential to contribute to the rapprochement between the two nations. Nasser’s advisers, in particular the director of Al-Ahram, no doubt inspired by Loutfi El-Kholy, believed that a first step in that direction would be to establish a relationship between the person who led the Middle East section at Le Monde. It wasn’t a completely crazy bet: I was regarded in both political circles as a “progressive,” likely to be supportive of certain accomplishments of the Nasser regime.

The tenor of my articles had caught the attention of Egyptian officials. During the Belgian-Congolese crisis in 1960, I had clearly taken a position in the confrontation between Brussels and Léopoldville (the former name of the Congo-Zaire capital) in favor of the independence movement and its leader Patrice Lumumba, the victim of a large international conspiracy (to which the United States was no stranger) that led to his assassination and replacement by Mobutu. I was one of the only journalists in the French press to reveal the underside of the secession of the Katanga province directed by the Union Minière du Haut Katanga (UMHK), the Belgian holding company that exploiting the rich copper mines. Like all major companies during the colonial period, it feared that independence would infringe on its excessive privileges.

Two years later, in 1962, in a series of articles, I defended the Yemen Arab Republic after the overthrow of the monarchy. My sustained criticism of the Shah of Iran (who was considered in the West to be a “major reformer”), his human rights violations and his submission to the will of the United States, caught the attention of Egyptian political circles that broadly shared my politics.

My relative sympathy for Nasser’s Egypt contrasted with the open hostility of nearly the entire press toward the “dictator” in Cairo; my paper wasn’t the only one to criticize the Egyptian president, to compare him to Hitler and Stalin, to accuse him successively or simultaneously of being a fascist, communist, or worse—an agent of the Kremlin. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t fooled by the familiar insults in the West used to demonize Third World leaders who defied the established order. The leader of the Egyptian revolution hadn’t merely overthrown a monarchy, dispossessed the major landowners, dismantled the British, French and domestic industrial and financial oligarchies, as well as nationalized the Suez Canal—the flagship and symbol of foreign takeover in the Nile Valley—he had also established cordial relations with the USSR and its satellite nations as a counterbalance to Western influence, in particular that of the United States. The fourth French republic criticized first and foremost his support for the Algerian people’s uprising, virtually declaring Nasser the instigator of that independence movement.  Since all is fair in love and war, the campaign against Nasser had a decidedly moral tone, to better conceal the hidden interests of these major powers.

I felt that it was entirely legitimate for Nasser to support the Algerian revolution, to want to erect the Aswan Dam as a way to expand and streamline the irrigation of a country that was largely desert, as a way to increase its energy capacity and in the process, that of its industrial potential. I considered it rather petty on the part of Washington in 1956 to deprive the project of its financial and technological support as a way of “punishing” Nasser for its arms deal with Russia which after all was justified by the United States’ refusal to sell Egypt those very means for self-defense.
Resisting Imperialism

It wasn’t difficult to share the enthusiasm of the Egyptian people, as well as all people of the Third World when the Suez Canal Company was nationalized on July 26, 1956, an initiative of unprecedented temerity for the time. It was a revolutionary act, the second in the region after the aborted nationalization of Iranian petroleum four years earlier by the moderate nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. His defiance led him to be vilified and denounced as an agent of Moscow, then finally overthrown in the 1953 coup d’état fomented by the CIA. In both cases, however, the reacquisition of national resources was consistent with the rights of sovereignty and did not violate the interests of shareholders who were lawfully expropriated and fairly compensated.

The retaliation against Nasser, compared to what Mossadegh experienced, seemed to me even more brutal and just as unjustified. Barely three months after the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, Israeli tanks entered the Sinai while French and British forces landed at Port Said in order to, it was claimed, separate the warring factions. In reality, the common objective of the allies was to bring down Nasser’s republic, as well as the Jewish state’s desire for free access to the Suez Canal, and above all, take over the Sinai. The victory of the invaders appeared certain, despite the robust Egyptian resistance, until the day that U.S. President Eisenhower put an end to it, demanding and obtaining the withdrawal of all foreign troops. The Soviet premier, Marshall Bulganin, had himself threatened to intervene militarily, no doubt a symbolic gesture of support from Moscow to a developing nation.

The one-of-a-kind American president wasn’t without his own interests either. He had taken umbrage at the collusion between London, Paris and Jerusalem behind his back, with their obvious goal of having dominion over Egypt. Eisenhower was right, though; his intervention brought the popularity and influence of the United States in Egypt and across the Middle East to new heights while the failure of this “tripartite aggression” sounded the death knell for the Franco-British presence in Egypt and marked the beginning of the decline of these two powers in the region. The damage done to Israel was no less: the Jewish state was seen more than ever as an expansionist state in the service of Western imperialism.

In spite of all this, I went back to Egypt with strong reservations regarding the Nasser regime. The overthrow of the monarchy followed by major economic and social reforms, as well as the restoration of national sovereignty after the permanent eviction of the British occupying forces, admittedly satisfied the convictions of my youth. But the military aspect of the regime established by the junta that seized power on July 23, 1952, remained from my point of view an indelible stain.  In the conflict two years later that would pit Nasser against General Mohammed Naguib, the leader and icon of the revolution, I believed that the latter, in wanting to legalize all political parties, from the Muslim Brotherhood to the communists and to restore parliament, was right.

Paradoxically, I wasn’t unsympathetic to the arguments made by General Naguib’s adversaries: that such democratization would merely reestablish the influence of big business, which still had the means to dominate the political scene. The single-party system was in place in most of the countries that had achieved independence since World War II, and it seemed that it was the price to pay to insure progress and well-being of people in developing nations.

Torn between these two diametrically opposed arguments, I thought I’d found the right position in the belief that single party system or not, nothing justified depriving public freedoms, the violation of what we would later call human rights. The brutal repression in Egypt of all of the opposition—liberal Wafdists, communists and the Muslim Brotherhood—was intolerable to me, especially since abuse of all kinds was not uncommon in internment camps. Le Monde reported, at the beginning of the 1960s, the death under torture of two prominent intellectuals who I had known personally in Cairo in my youth, two men I admired: Farid Haddad, the “doctor to the poor,” who was one of my high school classmates, and Shouhdi Attya El-Chafei, who I had known when he was editor-in-chief of the weeklyAl Gamahir (The Masses). Shouhdi, an adjunct English professor whose charisma and intelligence seduced more than a few people, played a major role in the communist movement. The bitter irony was that the two men had been beaten to death by their jailers even though neither was fundamentally anti-Nasser.

I had their memories in mind when Mohamed Hassanein Heikal welcomed me the day after my return to Cairo in June 1963. Over the course of the dinner in my honor on the terrace of the Semiramis, a hotel on the banks of the Nile, I wanted to immediately dispel any ambiguity that could have colored our budding friendship. I thanked him for the invitation and for giving me the opportunity to once again set foot in my native land, this time under quite different conditions than those that led to my exile. I was also grateful to him for obtaining the agreement in principle from President Nasser for an interview with Le Monde, a privilege that the leader rarely granted. While incidentally revealing my ethical boundaries, which I strictly adhered to, I made it clear that my friendship would never be unconditional and that I would be publishing a series of articles upon my return to Paris that he most likely would not like, but which would honestly reflect my own views, views that were certainly not his own nor those of the Egyptian leadership. Heikal, a very understated man, accepted the message with a surprised grimace, and then, it seemed to me, a barely-disguised look of satisfaction.  Loutfi El-Kholy, who was present for the discussion, later told me that the Al-Ahram editor preferred by far to deal with a man of convictions, as he was himself, even if our opinions diverged. He felt that good faith criticism coming from a credible observer better served the Nasser regime than praises from a servile journalist. As an experienced journalist himself quite familiar with the Western press, my intransigence surely did not shock him.

I then brought up the most taboo question of all, that of the persecution of political prisoners, saying I was planning to pose it to the president during the interview. Knowing that Heikal would of course warn Nasser about it, I added that in world opinion, or at least France’s for the purpose of our newspaper, the internment camps eclipsed the positive aspects of Egyptian government policy. The implicit warning was not lost on Heikal, who in response merely flashed an enigmatic smile. Several years later I would learn that he secretly shared my opinion.

My meeting with Gamal Abdel Nasser several days later would be decisive in more than one way. First, I was pleasantly surprised by the cordial simplicity of how he received me. Dressed in canvas pants and a light cotton shirt with an open collar, he welcomed us, Rosy and me, in a relatively modest home in the Cairo suburb of Manshiet El-Bakry, where he had lived as a young military officer—lodgings he preferred to the palaces provided by the republic. The living room where the interview took place was furnished in the tradition of the Egyptian middle class—imitation Louis XV couches and armchairs—far from reflecting the status of a head of state. The grayish-green wall was decorated with signed portraits of Third World leaders: Tito, Nehru, Zhou Enlai, Nkrumah and Sukarno. The room did not have air conditioning, and a fan made the June Cairo heat just bearable. Our interview—which alternated between English and the Egyptian colloquial Arabic—lasted more than two hours. Heikal was present, but out of respect to the president he never said a word during the conversation.

Tall, with the massive shoulders of a slightly stooped boxer and an intense but kind look, our host spoke first to put us at ease. The ice was quickly broken: he was lonely, he complained, ever since his family, wife and children, left for Alexandria for their summer vacation. The house, where we saw no aides or domestic help (except the one who served us lemonade and Turkish coffee), felt desperately vacant to him. Fortunately, he added, he worked a lot, too much for his taste, in his home office. Despite his schedule, he forced himself to take time to indulge in his favorite sports, swimming and tennis. Didn’t he have a hobby to pass the time? Nasser wouldn’t go so far as to confide his affection—which his friends knew about—for movie Westerns, nor his passion for chess which he played as often as possible with General Abdel Hakim Amer, his closest friend among the officers who seized power in July 1952. He would go on to fire him with a heavy heart after the 1967 military debacle in which Amer, then military chief-of-staff, was held responsible.

Nasser displayed an insatiable curiosity and an extraordinary ability to listen. Before I could formulate the first of my questions, he asked me at length about my professional life, the way French media worked, the freedoms they had, and, most surprisingly, about my personal life. How many children did we have? Where did we live? How was I able to purchase our apartment in the center of Paris with payments on an installment plan? What are the interests included in a French bank loan? What percentage of our household income went to paying back those loans? My astonished look caused him to excuse himself for his indiscretion, explaining that he trying to figure out a way to provide Egyptians with low-cost housing that they would own, and he was asking the question to know if such a project was a utopian one in a developing country where the income of the vast majority of citizens was barely enough to survive. And as if his office hadn’t provided him with all relevant information about me, he asked me about my origins, the life I had led in Egypt in my youth, all while carefully avoiding the reasons that led to my exile. We were “neighbors” since my birthplace, Heliopolis, was near his home in Manshiet El-Bakry where the interview was taking place. He was clearly engaged in a game of seduction for which men gifted in communication have the secret.

This essay is adapted from Le Moyen-Orient au-delà Des Mythes, which will be published by Fayard in 2012. The essay was translated from the French by Grant Rosenberg.

Éric Rouleau was an editorial writer and special correspondent for the French daily Le Monde from 1955 until 1985. He is a frequent contributor to Le Monde Diplomatique. He was France’s ambassador to Tunisia from 1985 to 1986 and to Turkey from 1988 to 1992. Author of numerous books, his memoir, Le Moyen-Orient au-delà Des Mythes will be published in late 2012.