Sunday, June 7, 2009

On Being Taken Seriously

"Obama and the Middle East," the latest piece by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley for The New York Review, was completed on May 14, about half a month before Barack Obama set off on his trip to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. I have no idea how much of a voice these authors have in the current Administration. This most recent analysis covers a lot of ground in both space and time and is not easily summarized. Nevertheless, the two concluding paragraphs deserve attention:

The broader point is this: a window exists, short and subject to abrupt closure, during which President Obama can radically upset Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim preconceptions and make it possible for his future plan, whatever and whenever it might be, to get a fair hearing—for American professions of seriousness to be taken seriously. It won't be done by repackaging the peace process of years past. It won't be done by seeking to strengthen those leaders viewed by their own people as at best weak, incompetent, and feckless, at worst irresponsible, careless, and reckless. It won't be done by perpetuating the bogus and unhelpful distinction between extremists and moderates, by isolating the former, reaching out to the latter, and ending up disconnected from the region's most relevant actors.

It won't be done by trying to perform better what was performed before. President Bush's legacy was, in this sense, doubly harmful: he did the wrong things poorly, which now risks creating the false expectation that, somehow, they can be done well.

In analyzing the current situation (without directly trying to bias Obama's thoughts about planning a solution), Agha and Malley may have hit on a diagnosis of the even greater problem of United States "homeland security." In an ironic way the recent rants of Dick Cheney may have a kernel of truth to them: The security of the United States is in jeopardy, but the threats come from a variety of both external and internal sources that probably agree on nothing other than a failure to take our institutions of government seriously. What sort of "Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim preconceptions" are we to expect regarding a country that encourages others to follow its practices of free, open, and fair elections and then rejects the results of those elections (as we have done in Gaza) or threatens such rejection (which seems to have been a not-so-thinly veiled subtext during Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Lebanon)?

The thread that runs through the Agha-Malley analysis is that too much attention is being given by all parties in power towards maintaining the status quo, primarily because those in power stand to gain from that status quo, albeit in a variety of different ways. On the other hand all those people who are not part of their respective power structures can only lose if that status quo is maintained. Indeed, some of them have very little left to lose, which is why they are easily drawn to taking extreme measures, even when those measures cost them their own lives. Meanwhile, the ideals behind the formation of the United States Government continue to inspire such losers around the world. They take those ideals very seriously. They only wish that the United States did the same.

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