That President Obama has changed the character of the discourse towards the Muslim World is now old news. He conjures themes of reconciliation and mutual respect and eschews discussions of hate and fear. He talks of dialogue and diplomacy and avoids threats. It has been noted and rewarded. He is easily the most popular leader in the Muslim World and anti-Americanism has experienced palpable decline since his election.
While the fear that the US may invade another Muslim country has receded there is still anger and resentment at the US for its military operations in Iraq and Afpak and its support for Israel. Intellectuals and politicians do recognize that President Obama by using a new language has ignited hope that US-Muslim relations will change. But there is lingering skepticism. There are those who say, “perhaps the packaging has changed but the contents remain the same.”
President Obama however has gone beyond changing the language of US foreign policy; he has also changed its posture towards the Muslim World. Here are two examples. President Obama and his team have repeatedly insisted the Israeli settlements in the West Bank are not helpful to the peace process and must be halted. This is not a change in policy; this was US policy all along. The only change is that a US administration is willing to assert this even in the face of a public disagreement with the Israeli government.
A more significant change in posture underpins President Obama’s approach towards Iran. His insists that the US will leave no diplomatic stone unturned in an effort to persuade Iran to abandon its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. The recent decision to accept Iran’s invitation for direct talks even after it refused to discuss its nuclear program speaks volumes about America’s new posture towards Iran.
Most analysts in the Muslim World are not giving President Obama due credit for the changes he has brought to American foreign policy towards the Muslim World. They acknowledge that he speaks differently but they are still waiting to see if he acts differently.
These skeptics must realize that both language and posture in foreign policy cannot be altered without significant adjustments. The reason why President Obama is able to speak in a different language and adopt a different posture is primarily because he has a different vision of America’s presence on the world stage. Yes, he wants America to be secure, preeminent and influential globally, but unlike his predecessor he wishes to secure these goals by rebuilding the culture of multilateralism, restoring faith in American diplomacy and deploying respect rather than arrogance as a medium of international exchange.
There is a strong constituency in the US and Europe that feels that Iran is getting closer to a nuclear weapon and every delay helps it in its relentless pursuit. They feel that Iran is going to use dialogue as a ploy to buy time. This constituency feels that unless the US acts soon either Iran will go nuclear or Israel will take matters in its own hands and attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. Either scenario will lead to the destabilization of the Middle East and according to most analysts a spurt in radicalism and terrorism.
Iran is not the only state in the Middle East defying the US. Israel too has for months refused to comply with US demands to stop building Jewish settlements on Palestinian land. Israel’s refusal has become a major impediment to the peace process since the Palestinians feel that settlements are altering facts on the ground.
The Arab world shares Israeli and US concerns about Iranian nuclear ambitions, but is waiting to see how the US deals with Israeli defiance. They too are demanding action; either Israel stops or the US makes it stop.
If the US punishes one defiance and rewards the other; the hypocrisy may escape observation in the US but in the Middle East it will signal the return of the Bush-Cheney America – hypocritical, unreliable and untrustworthy. The gains made by President Obama’s eloquence and positive overtures towards the Muslim World will be lost.
The point is simple, President Obama; talk is good and good talk is necessary and helpful, but ultimately what matters is action.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and a Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.