I must admit that when I listened to the Al Arabia interview with President Barack Obama, I had thought it was at worst innocuous, and possibly of some diplomatic advantage for the United States. I even told my wife that I thought that the President had done a good job and found nothing in his remarks to which I would object (except for a minor gaffe that I will mention at the end of this piece.)
It took the ear of Professor Fouad Ajami, more finely tuned to how President Obama's words would be heard in the Arab world, to set me right. In a piece in today's Wall Street Journal, Professor Ajami states that the message conveyed by the President to Arab leaders is that the United States is back to business as usual with Arab despots--they need fear no challenge from the U.S. to their authoritarian rule. Ajami notes:
The irony now is obvious: George W. Bush as a force for emancipation in Muslim lands, and Barack Hussein Obama as a messenger of the old, settled ways. Thus the "parochial" man takes abroad a message that Muslims and Arabs did not have tyranny in their DNA, and the man with Muslim and Kenyan and Indonesian fragments in his very life and identity is signaling an acceptance of the established order.
If Professor Ajami is correct, the "back to business" approach to American foreign policy in the Middle East will have some pernicious consequences:
Where Mr. Bush had seen the connection between the autocratic ways in Muslim lands and the culture of terror that infected the young foot soldiers of radicalism, Mr. Obama seems ready to split the difference with their rulers. His embrace of the "peace process" is a return to the sterile diplomacy of the Clinton years, with its belief that the terror is rooted in the grievances of the Palestinians. Mr. Obama and his advisers have refrained from asserting that terrorism has passed from the scene, but there is an unmistakable message conveyed by them that we can return to our own affairs, that Wall Street is more deadly and dangerous than that fabled "Arab-Muslim Street."
And yet, Professor Ajami notes, the Arab Islamist radicals are under no compulsion to accept America's current preoccupation with its domestic economic woes, just as 9-11 showed that the Islamist terrorists were willing to strike at the heart of the United States financial empire at the time of its maximum prosperity:
But foreign challengers and rogue regimes are under no obligation to accommodate our mood and our needs. They are not hanging onto news of our financial crisis, they are not mesmerized by the fluctuations of the Dow. I know it is a cliché, but sooner or later, we shall be hearing from them. They will strip us of our illusions and our (new) parochialism.
A dispatch from the Arabian Peninsula bears this out. It was learned, right in the midst of the news cycle announcing that Mr. Obama has ordered that Guantanamo be shut down in a year's time, that a Saudi by the name of Said Ali al-Shihri -- who had been released from that prison in 2007 to his homeland -- had made his way to Yemen and had risen in the terror world of that anarchic country. It had been a brief stop in Saudi Arabia for Guantanamo detainee No. 372: He had gone through a "rehabilitation" program there, then slipped across the border to Yemen, where he may have been involved in a terror attack on the U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital in September of last year.
This war was never a unilateral American war to be called off by an American calendar. The enemy, too, has a vote in how this struggle between American power and radical Islamism plays out in the years to come.
A rather profound and sobering assessment, I think, and from a source that merits our close attention.
As for the gaffe by the President that I noted, that came in a description of his hopes for a future Palestinian state, living side by side in peace with Israel, a Palestinian state that (echoing a similar error by then Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice) would have "contiguous" boundaries. To appreciate the nature of the mistake, the reader need only look at this map of Israel, which shows her 1948-1967 borders in tan and lands conquered in the June 1967 war, including the so-called West Bank and Gaza, in yellow.
Even under the Arab League's peace proposal, under which Israel would roll back to its June 5, 1967 borders and cede the entire Gaza and West Bank to a new Palestinian state, the West Bank and Gaza are not contiguous. They are separated by Israel. The only way to make them contiguous would be to chop Israel in half and make it non-contiguous.
The President therefore obviously misspoke, I hope.