In the spring and summer of 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama, fresh off a historic election victory, traveled to Egypt and Turkey to deliver speeches about beginning a new chapter in relations between America and the Muslim world.
Obama refuted the argument that Washington was engaged in a war against Islam, saying that his country was only interested in targeting “violent extremists.” He also issued a call for a two-state solution in Palestine, stating that Israeli settlements of Palestinian land enjoyed no legitimacy.
Four years later, the Arab world that Obama addressed is a markedly different place.
In the wake of his successful re-election battle, Obama is expected to travel next month to Palestine to meet with Palestinian and Israeli officials, as well as pay a visit to next-door Jordan.
But instead of offering a message of hope, Obama’s visit this time around is generating questions. American officials are already playing down the notion that the president will promote a serious peace initiative when he travels to the Holy Land. Instead, he will face a legion of skeptics who heard his inspiring words in 2009, and then watched closely as little to no follow-up ensured.
Obama might have claimed that the U.S. was not the enemy of Islam, but the White House has done nothing to help its cause. It never closed the infamous Guantanamo detention center, and it never backed off from its objectionable policy of using drone warfare to kill people around the world – and the victims just have to be in Muslim countries.
Most people in the Middle East are not enthusiastic supporters of the hard-line Islamist terrorists who are targeted in such strikes, but uncounted numbers of innocent people perish in such attacks, and the U.S. violates its own lofty declared standards, by executing people without trial.
Also, the U.S. has done nothing to stop the growth of Israeli settlements. The sight of Obama holding talks with the Israeli premier will be read as support for Benjamin Netanyahu, even though the first Obama administration was supposedly freezing out its staunch ally. In fact, the number of settlers has jumped to over 325,000, after standing at “only” 111,000 some two decades ago, while bilateral military cooperation and aid flows from Washington to Tel Aviv have remained robust.
If Obama intends for his trip to have a positive impact, he should have something new up his sleeve. Otherwise, by visiting the Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians and having nothing of consequence to say, he will only significantly increase the high level of political frustration in the Middle East.
The U.S. administration might believe Iran and the tumultuous “Arab Spring” have made people forget about the Palestinians and their demands, but this is just wishful thinking. Obama should remember that in 2009 he spoke out against settlements, and has been unable to solve even that one aspect of the Palestine question.