Sunday, March 02, 2008

On the Middle East Obama remains committed

Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

In the presidential debate of late February, at a very competitive stage, Obama did not assure Arab-Americans or Muslims of his special regard for their concerns. Some Arabs interpreted Obama’s unconditional support of Israel in this forum as a subtle betrayal of Arab and Muslim sentiments.

However, others in the Arab-American community do understand the circumstances for Obama’s appeasement of the Jewish community. Now that he is near the Democratic front-runner status he feels that he must be careful not to jeopardize his candidacy. Attempts to handicap him in reputation, ideology, background, qualification, racial identity, faith, and unsavory affiliation, which have come from limitless sources, are indeed taxing his presidential campaign.

Obama expects Arab-Americans not to look at him through a narrow, Middle East lens. The senator expects them to appreciate the fact that any US president needs to be a close partner to Israel in order to succeed in enabling a just-peace for the region.

The presumptive Democratic nominee has chosen a tough ideological path to follow in his national campaign. His views on abortion, health care, poverty, immigration, taxes, Iraq (troop withdrawal), Iran (open for dialogue) and Palestine (viable statehood) promise formidable policy changes.

Arab-Americans who brush aside the challenges in these ideological fronts tend to judge his candidacy by his stance on Iraq, Palestine and Islam. From an Arab perspective, Obama’s Iraq policy is sound. However, his Israel-Palestine policies are balanced in his writings but not always in his campaign speeches. And on Islam, the senator from Illinois appears sometimes too defensive.

While Clinton is too eager to please Israel, Obama often walks a tightrope to satisfy both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide. In a close national presidential race the Middle East dynamics may affect the election results. On Israel-Palestine, the Democrats are divided but most Republicans unconditionally support the Jewish state.

In the February debate, Obama’s moderate pro-Jewish credentials and his connection with Islam were scrutinized. His response assured the Jewish community, and the wider American circle of Israel supporters, that an Obama presidency would not change the privileged position of Israel. He proudly stated that he is close to Israel, that he receives inspiration and support from the Jewish constituency and that he plans to strengthen the ties between the African-American and the Jewish communities.

There is another side to Obama’s complex message. The candidate has popularized the refreshing slogan “yes we can.” He certainly reflected his positive can-do outlook in addressing the Cleveland Jewish community on February 24, 2008:

I will strengthen Israel's security and strengthen Palestinian partners who support that vision and personally work for two states that can live side-by-side in peace and security with Israel's status as a Jewish state ensured so that Israelis and Palestinians can pursue their dreams.” He added that the Palestinian state has to be sustainable. “It’s going to have to be contiguous; it’s going to have to work. It’s going to have to function in some way. This is in Israel’s interest, by the way. If you have a balkanized unsustainable state, it will break down and we will be back in the same boat.”

In the Cleveland speech the Illinois senator expressed more can-do policy: “This is where I get to be honest and I hope I am not out of school here. I think there is a strain within the pro-Israeli community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel and that can’t be the measure of our friendship with Israel.”

In seeking justice for the Holy Land Obama has to sensitively challenge the confining American pro-Israeli perspective. He needs to convince the voters that America’s compassion for the Jewish people does not negate compassion for the Palestinians; that strengthening the Judeo-Christian bond does not have to alienate Muslims; that assuring lasting security for Israel does not lessen the viability of a Palestinian state; that re-activating the peace process does not undermine long-term Israeli security; that listening to Arab-Americans does not signal a distancing from Israel.

But still Arab-Americans yearn for more political courage from Obama, the candidate of “change.” Many Muslims who tend to identify with Barack feel hurt that he seems to be more eager to protect his image as a devout Christian than to promote the message that Islam is an honorable religion that is being treated in the media as a social problem.

Obama has been attacked by racists and religious bigots on his background association with Islam. In the February debate, when asked if he has any special ties with Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, he denounced its leader whose anti-Semitism is known. Strangely, no party in the debate exchange took the opportunity to clarify that Islam, as a religion, has no theological connection with the Nation of Islam cult. Obama has to stop distancing himself from Islam and to confront the bigoted smear on his candidacy. Obama can treat his cultural proximity to Islam as strength and as an inspiring message.

Personal ambition and political insecurity impact Obama’s courage and political innovation. To expect him to be daring while he is not politically secure maybe unrealistic. In the next electoral phase, if Obama is chosen to be the Democratic nominee, he should become confident enough to tackle international and Middle East policies with sufficient courage.


Blogger Todd said...

Good article. As an Obama supporter, I didn't like his uneasiness when asked about Farrakhan during that particular debate. It could have been an opportune moment for Obama to draw a distinction between the two faiths, but the problem I see with the debates is that everything is so scrutinized in the news one false step along that tightrope is political suicide -- therefore, despite the forum being called a debate, it's really just about branding yourself to the larger audience instead of clarifying national misconceptions and prejudices. This is probably the main problem with the national stage in this era, and raises the real question of who controls national discourse?

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