Friday, June 5, 2009

Obama's Cairo Speech: Imperialism and the International Double Standard

Ali Abunimah of Electric Intifada has a great article on the speech for the Guardian that points out that "Once you strip away the mujamalat – the courtesies exchanged between guest and host – the substance of President Obama's speech in Cairo indicates there is likely to be little real change in US policy." You can see this by looking at the plan Obama laid out for individual conflicts, or you can look at the overall logic he applied to the Middle East.One way you can look at this logic is as a two-tiered system for evaluating responses to conflict: one for the US and its allies, and another for everyone else.

According to Obama, when the US is wronged, even when only a relatively small number of its citizens are affected, it has the right to respond with overwhelming force:
Over seven years ago, the United States pursued al Qaeda and the Taliban with broad international support. We did not go by choice, we went because of necessity. I am aware that some question or justify the events of 9/11. But let us be clear: al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people on that day. The victims were innocent men, women and children from America and many other nations who had done nothing to harm anybody.
Al Qaeda's murder of 3,000 Americans justifies the invasion of Afghanistan, but America's invasion of Iraq, in which many times that number died, were injured, or were forced to flee their homes, doesn't justify resistance. Those who fight back against the American occupation of Iraq are "extremists" who have to be isolated. (As Matthew Yglesias pointed out a couple weeks ago, an "extremist" is generally anyone who doesn't accept American hegemony.)

Likewise, America's invasion of Afghanistan, its support for dictators across the Middle Easat, and Israel's expulsion of Palestinians from their land and its refusal to let them return don't justify resistance, even though all these policies are far more deadly and destructive than al Qaeda's attack against America. That's a double standard for the use of military force, which is one of the essential underpinnings for imperialism, and under Obama it will continue to be official US policy, despite all the pretty talk about respect and understanding.
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  1. "America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire" - Obama

    I too thought that Obama's spin on imperialism was the most significant aspect of his speech. Unfortunately, the Western media seemed to not have noticed at all. I believe it is because US presidents do not spin the topic, they just avoid it altogether. Perhaps the media were caught off guard.

    On another note,

    "Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition."

    Obama declared himself a student of history yet placed the Cordoba caliphate and the inquisition in the same historical period when they are almost half a millennium apart! It reminded me of those cartoons in which dinosaurs battle humans.

  2. I think Obama's statement about America not being "the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire" is interesting because it's basically a description of himself. In many ways, Bush was the crude stereotype of an imperialist, but Obama isn't. That's his job: rescuing capitalism and imperialism by softening their edges and making them seem like they might be tolerable.

    I'm not sure Obama was technically wrong about Cordoba. He just said 'Cordoba', i.e. the city of Cordoba, not the caliphate of Cordoba. It's redundant to say Andalusia and Cordoba since Cordoba is in Andalusia, but it's not chronologically wrong.