- February 16, 2010
- 5 minutes read
Hillary disappoints the Muslim world
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton worked tirelessly to earn her party’s nomination, yet it was Barack Obama who rode to office on a wave of goodwill. Which means now-Secretary of State Clinton must be feeling a sense of deja vu. In his April 2009 speech in Cairo, President Obama pledged to create a new relationship between America and the Muslim world through shared values, cooperation, and a renewed effort to alleviate specific policy concerns commonly felt among Muslims.
Nearly a year later, however, Secretary Clinton faced a tough crowd at the sixth annual US-Islamic World Forum, where she pleaded for patience in the face of unrealised goals. “I understand why people might be impatient,” explained Clinton. “But building a stronger relationship cannot happen overnight or even in a year.” That may be so, but it was little solace for many Muslim observers who momentarily put aside their skepticism in the hope that the US would use its newly-found moral high ground to press for change.
Perhaps it is the fault of many in the region for letting hope trump decades of realpolitik, but at the time of the Cairo speech, change really did seem possible. Take the Israel-Palestine conflict, for example. We have a near-universal consensus on what a final settlement will look like, and all but the most cynical feel that the status quo is unacceptable. If ever there was a case that begged for the use of America’s full diplomatic weight to drive home a solution, this is it. But with the Obama administration backing off demands on the Israeli government to implement promised settlement freezes, the crowd in Doha remained unconvinced.
To be sure, change in the region requires direct, honest negotiations between the parties themselves, and Secretary Clinton rightly reminded the audience that the US cannot impose a solution. But when she raises the issue of reopening Israel’s trade office in Doha in response to a plea to ease Gaza’s isolation and spends an inordinate amount of time during her speech trying to convince Arabs that Iran constitutes a mortal threat to them, we have to wonder whether we’ve gone back in time to the Bush administration.
“This speech was a reminder that the US and the Arabs it’s presumably trying to win over are still worlds apart when it comes to critical policy issues such as Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the role of Hamas in Palestine,” commented Shadi Hamid, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Centre, which co-sponsored the event with the Qatari government.
It is disappointing to have hopes dashed, but maybe a bit of cold water is a good thing. While it has been great to see a real shift of attitude in Washington towards the Muslim world – and, unrealised goals aside, there is no reason to believe this has changed – perhaps it is more realistic for those involved in conflicts in the region to not depend on others to lead the charge in solving their problems.
But so long as the application of American diplomatic strength leaves current power imbalances in place and insists on making the American or Israeli perspective on regional issues the sole definitive one, there will be no change forthcoming. Which probably explains why many in the Arab and Muslim worlds put so much stock in President Obama’s Cairo speech – after all, without a breakdown of the structures that help perpetuate conflict, hope is all you have left.