Juan Cole Gives Obama a B+ on US Foreign Policy in the Middle East
Last night GVSU hosted an event featuring Professor and author Juan Cole at the downtown campus. Cole, who writes a blog called Informed Comment, was given the task of assessing the first year of the Obama administration on relations with the Muslim world.
However, before talking about the Obama administration Cole provided some context by looking at the Bush administration’s approach to the Middle East and the Muslim World. Bush felt that the US could bring democracy to the rest of the world through the barrel of a gun.
Cole also thought that the countries of the Middle East saw the US as an alternative to traditional colonialism before Bush. After 9/11 that changed as the US now directly sought to control the governments of at least two countries – Iraq and Afghanistan. Cole believes that to some extent you could add Pakistan to that list.
Before the Bush administration the general attitude, based on polls, demonstrated the majority of Muslim countries had a relatively positive view of the US. Since, the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan that view has changed.
Cole also mentioned that the torture and detention facilities, like Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib, what Cole referred to as essentially concentration camps, have also contributed significantly to a growing anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world. The Muslim world saw the US as barbaric and murderous, once the world knew what was happening in these detention centers. However, Cole failed to mention that torture has continued under the Obama administration and that Obama has failed to close Guantanamo despite his campaign promise to do so.
Professor Cole then addressed the demonizing of the Muslim world, particularly the label Islamofascism. This notion is ridiculous, Cole said, since fascism has nothing to do with the religion of Islam. Fascism emerged out of Europe and was a specific ideology, which Muslims have never adopted.
However, the word became part of the media and the administration, in many ways normalizing the use of such derogatory terms. Cole believes that what the use of the word Islamofascism ultimately did was incense many in the Muslim world, but Cole failed to acknowledge what impact the term has had on campuses across the US in recent years.
Obama Administration Report Card
The Obama administration has been more sensitive since taking office, at least rhetorically said Cole, beginning with acknowledgement of the Persian New Year. Cole also points out the two major speeches he gave in Turkey and in Cairo. The new administration has also had open talks with Iran and Obama has spoken about a two state solution with Israel/Palestine. Lastly, the new administration has said they wanted to withdraw US troops from Iraq and eventually from Afghanistan.
The Muslim world has said that they want better relations with the US, but they would rather have development aid instead of military aid. Cole also said that polls show that in Saudi Arabia over 80% of the public says they are worried about terrorism. In addition, the level of support for Al-Qaeda has dropped to around 10% in recent years, since terrorism has also impacted many Muslim countries.
Cole then shows a map and talk about what countries in the Muslim world are Pro-American. He says that many of the Muslim countries are also secular and conservative, such as Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Bahrain. When looking at the Muslim countries that are anti-American or a threat to America Cole says that the countries are the Sudan, Somalia, Iraq and Syria.
So what should the US relations with the Muslim world be? Cole says that the Muslim population is projected to be about 1/3 of the world’s population by 2050, so it would not be good policy to have a negative relationship.
Professor Cole said the major security issues are the Pakistan-Afghanistan nexus, the Jihadis from the Soviet invasion of the 1980s, Kashmir, threat of a further Indo-Pak War, and Israel’s treatment of Palestine.
Cole then addresses the fact that 70% of the world’s petroleum reserves and 65% of the natural gas reserves are in the Middle East/Muslim world. Since China and India have growing energy needs, the US is in greater competition for these “energy needs.”
The speaker then addresses the distinction between the Arab and Muslim world. For the Arab world the number one issue is the US occupation of Iraq. Relations with the Arab world would be a complete withdrawal from Iraq. Cole looks at the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement with Iraq and says that the Obama administration has done fairly well with the process for withdrawal. Obama has pledged that the US will be out by the end of 2011. Cole thinks this is a win for Obama. However, other Middle East experts like Phyllis Bennis have argued that the Obama administration plans on leaving up to 50,000 US troops in Iraq and has no plans to remove the numerous US military bases.
One of the major problems facing the current administration is the Af-Pak War. Pakistan and Afghanistan both have a significant number of ethnic Pashtuns, some of which are part of the Taliban. Obama has put more pressure on Pakistan to deal with the ethnic Pashtuns. Cole thinks that the campaign was a win for the administration. However, Cole failed to mention the increased use of predator drone attacks, which have led to increased anti-America protests in Pakistan.
In Afghanistan the Taliban power has increased, so the new administration is escalating the occupation. Obama thinks that this policy will work and withdrawal can happen by the summer of 2011. Cole mentions that this will be a challenge, because of corruption, levels of poverty and violence. So, Cole thinks that Afghanistan is a big question mark. This seems to be a bit of an understatement, since there is growing criticism around Obama’s Afghan policy, both from independent analysts to people within his own administration.
On the matter of Iran, the Obama administration was concerned with improving relations with Iran, but has had to deal with Iranian domestic discontent. Cole thinks that Iranian hardliners aren’t interested in dialogue, but some analysts believe that the Obama administration is continuing the same policy towards Iran as the Bush administration, especially since pressure to impose sanctions on Iran have increased.
On the matter of Israel/Palestine the Obama administration has made no progress, according to Cole. The Israeli government does what it wants. His conclusion is that it is a mixed picture, but that the Obama administration is headed in the right direction. Cole seemed to contradict himself here, since it is clear that the US is putting no pressure politically on Israel to stop the expansion of settlements and there have been no consequences for Israel’s ongoing brutality of Palestinians, particularly in Gaza.
Cole concluded by saying that he would give the Obama administration a B+ on its policy in the Middle East. To this writer that seems quite generous, considering that little has changed from the Bush years to now, except rhetorically.