On June 4, President Barack Obama spoke at Cairo University. If the speech is judged in terms of good intentions it was tremendous. Given the obstacles that have frustrated every U.S. president who has embraced the challenges Obama addressed it is difficult to imagine how desire and words will usher in an era of peace and understanding. If only saying the right words could produce the right results.
Obama drew lines of moral equivalency in ways that muddy the facts, but perhaps he was trying to convince obstinate parties to see things his way. For example, he said, “Hamas does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, and to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist. At the same time, Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s.”
Reasonable people will agree. The two-state solution has already been endorsed by U.S. presidents prior to Obama. Israel has accepted the concept of a peaceful Palestinian neighbor and its troops departed Gaza in 2005. But there was no peace. Instead, Gaza was used as a launching pad for rockets aimed at Israel.
The question is, as it has long been, how to convince groups like Hamas, who is dedicated to Israel’s destruction, to ride the peace train.
Like his predecessors, Obama says the two-state solution will bring peace, adding, “That is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience that the task requires. The obligations that the parties have agreed to under the Road Map are clear. …Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed.”
Is that all? Why didn’t someone think of this long ago?
The terrible fact is that history indicates terrorism works. In his book, “Why Terrorism Works,” Harvard University professor Alan Dershowitz offers a timeline that makes the case. For example, in 1970, terrorists blew up a Swiss aircraft after it took off from Zurich; in 1972, terrorists captured 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics; in 1973 there were attacks on the El Al office and the Pan Am office in Rome. In November 1974 PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat spoke before the U.N. General Assembly (the first nonstate leader to be so honored) and the PLO was granted observer status at the U.N.
By the 1990s, Arafat would be recognized as a world leader, meeting with President Bill Clinton at the White House, speaking at Oxford University and elsewhere and receiving a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. Terrorism has not brought peace but it delivered to those who practiced it the desired results. It will take a global effort to change that.
If Obama can help bring peace to the Middle East it will be a monumental achievement. But reading the speech one notices it is both ambitious and naive.
Obama said, “So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.”
All true. But how will this miracle occur? Some Middle East scholars wonder, rightly, whether the West in general and America in particular, understands the source of what Princeton University professor Bernard Lewis called, in a 1990 essay, “The Roots of Muslim Rage.”
Lewis said many suggest America’s support of Israel is the main source of friction. While a point of discord, Lewis observes it is too simple an explanation. During Israel’s formative years the U.S. maintained a distance while the Soviet Union, Lewis wrote, “granted immediate de jure recognition and … sent arms from a Soviet satellite, Czechoslovakia” which “saved the infant state of Israel from defeat and death in its first weeks of life. Yet there seems to have been no great ill will toward the Soviets … and no corresponding good will toward the United States.”
This scenario has been repeated. Lewis wrote that in 1956 Washington secured the withdrawal of Israeli, British and French forces from Egypt “yet in the late fifties and sixties it was to the Soviets, not America, that the rulers of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and other states turned for arms; it was the Soviet bloc that they formed bonds of solidarity …”
America, it is said, supported despised regimes in the Arab world, which soured relations. Again, Lewis warns this misses the mark because “support for such regimes has been limited both in extent and – as the Shah discovered – in effectiveness. Clearly something deeper is involved …”
The hub of the predicament, Lewis suggests, is the world view of Western and Muslim cultures. Historically, he writes, Muslims may have had religious disagreements “but there was nothing remotely approaching the ferocity of the Christian struggles between Protestants and Catholics, which devastated Christian Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and finally drove Christians in desperation to evolve a doctrine of the separation of religion from the state. …Muslims experienced no such need and evolved no such doctrine.”
The West prospered, success flowing from economic advancement and free political institutions.
“At first the Muslim response to Western civilization was one of admiration and emulation,” Lewis said.
But this led to rejection, Lewis says, due to a sense that the long and honored history Muslims treasured had been “overwhelmed by those whom they regarded as their inferiors.”
Lewis writes, “For vast numbers of Middle Easterners, Western-style economic methods brought poverty. Western-style political institutions brought tyranny …It is hardly surprising that so many were willing to listen to voices telling them that the old Islamic ways were best and that their only salvation was to throw aside the pagan innovations of the reformers and return to the true path that God had prescribed for his people. Ultimately the struggle of the fundamentalists is against two enemies, secularism and modernism. …And since the United States is the … recognized and unchallenged leader of the West, the United States has inherited the resulting grievances and become the focus for the pent-up hate and anger.”
This is the quagmire into which Obama has set foot. The practical issues that must be addressed are many, including how to end the violence against Israel and determining the borders of a Palestinian state. As complex as they are, the deeper issues, as explained by Lewis, are more intricate. How can Obama reduce such cultural and ideological divides?
Continuing his trip in Germany, Obama acknowledged “ultimately the parties involved have to make the decision that the prosperity and security of their people are best served” by an agreement.
Thus, the situation is as it has always been. As has been the pattern of human history, peace will come in one of two ways – either one side is defeated and the peace of the victor will be imposed or both sides will agree the conflict is no longer worth the effort and come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement.
In Cairo, Obama spoke of a world in which everyone seeks the same goals. He said, “…we have a responsibility to join together on behalf of the world we seek – a world where extremists no longer threaten our people, and American troops have come home; a world where Israelis and Palestinians are each secure in a state of their own, and nuclear energy is used for peaceful purposes …Those are mutual interests. That is the world we seek.”
But it is not the world everyone seeks. That’s the problem. Obama’s speech was full of the hope and possibilities audiences expect from him. But getting applause from those who agree is easy. Getting agreement from those of differing views is hard. The president offered no strategy as to how he might span the ideological distances and cultural divides that have led the world to its current perilous juncture.
At the end of his speech, he said, “The people of the world can live together in peace.”
Yes, if that is what everyone wants. It has been that way since man first crept out of the cave – carrying a club.