America’s Sorry Policy

Posted December 30, 2009

Categories: Articles

In 1697, five years after the judges of Salem, Massachusetts sent 20 suspected witches to the gallows, one man stood up in front of his congregation and apologized. Samuel Sewall was one of the nine judges that gave official sanction to the hysteria of the witch trials. In a remarkable act of contrition, Sewall took upon his head the “blame and shame” of the tragedy and wore a hair shirt until the day of his death to remind him of his sin. More intriguingly, he went on to become a champion of civil rights and an early abolitionist.

It would be truly breathtaking if George W. Bush — or any of the architects of the U.S. foreign policy fiascos of the 21st century — donned a hair shirt, repented of his actions, and performed an ideological about-face. The parallels with Salem are not trivial: the hysteria, the torture, the legal travesties. But don’t hold your breath waiting for a mea culpa from the 43rd president. Instead, it’s left to Barack Obama to come to terms with the Bush legacy.

Last week in Cairo, President Obama gave a much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world. In many ways the speech was extraordinary. The president reaffirmed his own personal ties to the Islamic world, quoted from the Koran, lauded religious tolerance, upheld the rule of law, recognized that “the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” called on Israel to stop settlements, reaffirmed his commitment to nuclear abolition, and tactically refocused U.S. military campaigns against “violent extremism in all forms.”

The speech “reflected a significant shift away from the ideological framework of militarism and unilateralism that shaped the Bush administration’s war-based policy toward the Arab and Muslim worlds,” observes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Phyllis Bennis in Changing the Discourse. It will be remembered, as Akiva Eldar writes in Haaretz, “as the last day of the 9/11 era.” And the speech could also help shift the U.S. public’s attitudes about Islam, which have been largely negative. “If it reduces American prejudice against Arabs and Muslims, then his address would truly mark a new beginning for U.S.-Muslim relations,” writes FPIF contributor R.S. Zaharna in Improving U.S.-Muslim Relations.

For all its strong points, however, the speech didn’t contain any apologies. The president might have taken the opportunity to apologize for the way the Bush administration demonized Islam, killed countless Muslim civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, supported repressive states in the region, and abrogated the civil liberties of Muslim and Arab-Americans in the United States. But the United States rarely does apologies. And Obama prefers to focus on the future rather than the past.

The closest the president came to an apology was when he mentioned U.S. complicity in the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953. He didn’t apologize for the act (nor did Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000 when she too acknowledged U.S. involvement in the coup). “Rather than remain trapped in the past,” Obama said in Cairo, “I have made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward.”

The president no doubt fears a slippery slope — apologize for one U.S. policy and the demands will escalate to apologize for them all. For the conservative attack dogs, meanwhile, the word “sorry” is like the scent of fear and weakness. At the merest mention of an apology, they will leap at Obama’s throat.

And then there’s the problem of current U.S. actions. We continue to support autocratic leaders in the Arab world. “Many Arabs and Muslims have expressed frustration that Obama failed to use this opportunity to call on the autocratic Saudi and Egyptian leaders with whom he had visited on his Middle Eastern trip to end their repression and open up their corrupt and tightly controlled political systems,” writes FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes in How Not to Support Democracy in the Middle East. The Egyptian government’s crackdown on dissent prior to Obama’s visit was a painful reminder of U.S. double standards on democracy in the region.

Obama pledged to adhere to the timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq, noted that the United States desires no military bases in Afghanistan, and referred to the $1.5 billion in infrastructure assistance for Pakistan. But we’re still at war in these countries, and apologies, if they come at all, are issued long after the last shot is fired.

For all of the president’s attempts to focus the debate on “violent extremists,” U.S. aerial assaults and counterinsurgency operations are still claiming civilian lives in the Muslim world. This is particularly problematic in Afghanistan, as FPIF contributor Farrah Hassen points out. In his Cairo speech, the president “failed to acknowledge the growing civilian casualties due to increased U.S. drone attacks ostensibly aimed at dismantling the Taliban — a reality that only increases the risk of blowback against the United States, as opposed to winning the hearts and minds of Afghans, and of Muslims, alike,” she writes in Lifting the Veil. “Indeed, a military investigation concluded the United States made mistakes after the May 4 airstrikes in the western province of Farah that killed dozens of civilians.”

On the ground in Afghanistan, where support for NATO military operations has declined precipitously over the years, U.S. forces are experimenting with a new policy of prompt apologies for civilian casualties. The apologies are welcome in the region, but words can only go so far. “Apologies are good things,” Maolawi Hezatullah, provincial council head in Kunar where U.S. troops killed six civilians in April, told Reuters. “But the foreign troops should convince the people that there will be no more such incidents.”

Samuel Sewall didn’t simply apologize for his role in the Salem witch trials. He tried to remedy his errors by working to ensure that such atrocities would never reoccur. We may not see apologies for U.S. conduct in the Muslim world coming from top U.S. officials. But if Obama manages to end the “collateral damage” to civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, then U.S. policy will change indeed.

A New Beginning With Russia?

The Obama administration is all about hitting the restart button in its foreign policy. Nowhere has this rhetoric been more prominent than in relations with Russia. The president is looking to work closely with Moscow on nuclear arms reductions, policy toward Iran and North Korea, and the overall energy and economic crises.

The Russian leadership was initially skeptical of Obama, says Dmitri Trenin in an interview with FPIF contributor Paul Hockenos. “President Medvedev did not seize the opportunity to congratulate Obama during an address just hours after his election victory in November 2008,” Trenin says. “Instead, he subjected American policies to harsher criticism than even Putin had. But within a few weeks he changed course dramatically. They decided that they could do business with Obama; that he was in fact not an ideologue but a pragmatist; the people he brought in from the Clinton administration were also pragmatists.”

The test of this new relationship will be the arms control talks that began last week in Moscow between U.S. and Russian negotiators. They hope to have a framework agreement in place for the upcoming bilateral summit in July that could set a target of a 30-40% reduction in deployed nuclear weapons and a 50% cut in delivery systems.

Reducing what we have isn’t the only or even the most important indicator of progress in an abolition agenda. “Nuclear weapons states can only prove that they are serious about the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons if they stop investing in modernizing and improving their nuclear weapons capabilities,” writes FPIF columnist Zia Mian in Nuclear Promises. “The United States has a chance to signal such intent in the coming year in the debate over U.S. Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).”

Restarting the IMF?

The economic crisis has destroyed jobs, pension funds, businesses, economies. One thing it hasn’t destroyed is the International Monetary Fund.

“Last year, as the financial crisis reached global and historic proportions, many commentators identified one institution as the debacle’s great winner: the International Monetary Fund,” writes FPIF contributor Aldo Caliari in The IMF Is Back? Think Again. “Just two years ago, the IMF seemed to be on an inexorable downward path: its credibility and effectiveness in question, its portfolio of borrowers severely reduced, its legitimacy and governance structure under challenge, and its own finances in disarray. In fact, the Fund had started ‘downsizing’ its staff as the only way to avoid running one of the deficits that it so strongly advises client countries to steer away from.”

Another frustrating holdover from the past is U.S. policy toward Western Sahara. FPIF contributor Aminatou Haidar, a Sahrawi activist who received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award last year, urges the Obama administration to resist Morocco’s push for autonomy rather than self-determination for Western Sahara.

“For the last three decades, Morocco has denied Western Sahara the basic human right to self-determination, one of the tenets of the United Nations,” she writes in Why the Maghreb Really Matters. “An International Court of Justice ruling in 1975 confirmed Morocco’s invasion as illegal. Numerous UN resolutions established the mechanism for a referendum on self-determination in Western Sahara. And there has been a long-running UN mission in the region designed to move the populace toward self-determination. Still, the forced occupation of Western Sahara continues.”

Finally, there is the issue of water. At a recent water forum in Istanbul, the Obama administration largely continued the policies of its predecessor. “The Obama administration’s performance at the World Water Forum was lackluster,” writes Daniel Moss in Managing World Water. “It did not sign the alternative declarations to declare water a human right or seek to move policy deliberations to the UN. Whether the administration’s plate is too full to pay attention or it is intentionally repeating the Bush administration’s poor stewardship of the globe’s natural resources is still unclear.”

Several months ago in his inaugural speech, Obama promised the world’s people “to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow.” Those were fine words. The president is a great writer and a great orator. Putting words into action, the messy part of politics, remains his most difficult challenge.

FPIF, June 9, 2009

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