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Barack Obama's presidency

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From free trade to the Kosovo crisis.

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Egypt Is Test of Obama's Promises

By Kevin Zeese
February 5, 2011

Editor’s Note: President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo called for “a new beginning” in the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world. However, until now, there have been few signs of substance behind the words.

Today, with the popular upheavals in Egypt and other Arab countries, Obama’s words are being put to the test, as Kevin Zeese notes in this guest essay:

Egypt is an alarm that signals the urgent need for change in U.S. foreign policy. It provides President Obama an opportunity to transform a foreign policy that has often had the opposite effect than was sought and is undermining U.S. economic and national security.

The list of recent policy failures in the Middle East (along with the myths that sustain them) is quite astounding:

--The Iraq War, supposedly intended to create a western-style democracy and establish a base of operations for the U.S. in the region, has instead weakened U.S. influence.

U.S. military vulnerability to local resistance fighters was exposed. A wide range of abuses of civilians were reported. Perhaps the most damaging were the indelible mark left from the images of Americans torturing Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison.

The war also put in place a Shi’a government that is closely allied with Iran. The war and occupation further have weakened U.S. economic security by costing an estimated $3 trillion, much of which will be spent over the next decade taking care of injured soldiers.

--The U.S. has escalated the war in Afghanistan where once again local insurgents are holding the world’s only super power at bay and, according to some reports, defeating the U.S. military.

Last year saw increasing civilian and military casualties and 2011 is expected to be worse. The Afghan War quagmire has the U.S. government spending $1 million per year to keep each of the 100,000 or so U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

--A third front, the CIA-led undeclared war in Pakistan, is escalating. Drone attacks have increased from 35 in 2008 to 124 in 2010. They reportedly killed 1,184 people in 2010, creating increasing hatred and new enemies for the United States. 

Pakistan has also become an area to attack the supply lines to troops in Afghanistan. As a nuclear-armed state, Pakistan is a place where the stakes are very high and its stability is becoming more fragile in part due to these U.S. policies.

--The special relationship with Israel continues to undermine the reputation of the U.S. in the region. Israel has continued to build illegal settlements, the illegal separation wall and Israeli-only roads on Palestinian land -- all of which make a viable Palestinian state more difficult to achieve even if there were the political will to create one.

In 2006, democracy brought Hamas to power in Gaza in response to Israeli abuses, corruption in the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the Bush administration’s regional policies. Recently released documents also show Israel inflexible in peace talks, while the Palestinian negotiators were willing to compromise on almost every important issue.

Meanwhile, the militant group Hezbollah was strengthened by Israel’s brutal attack on Lebanon in 2006, a war which the U.S. failed to criticize.

While these represent some recent examples of Washington’s misguided strategies, the mistaken policies in the region are long term dating back to the 1953 coup in Iran removing elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh with disastrous consequences. 

The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 should have been a wake-up call leading to a re-examination of Middle East policy. The U.S. was attacked because of U.S. policies in the Mideast, especially on Palestine-Israel, U.S. military bases in the region and support of autocrats.

Much of the energy for al Qaeda came out of the Egyptian prisons of Hosni Mubarak where torture is all too common. Ayman al-Zawahiri, a medical doctor who is Osama bin Laden’s closest adviser and often described as the brains of al Qaeda, was tortured in Mubarak’s jails and left determined to destroy the United States for keeping Mubarak in power.

And, alleged 9/11 mastermind Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian engineer, was radicalized because of Mubarak’s domestic policies.

These mistakes have been costly not only in lives but in treasure. Hundreds of billions of dollars already have been spent on U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – and the final price tag will be in the trillions. These wars are draining the U.S. Treasury at a time when the nation is in economic collapse and austerity measures are creating hardship across the nation.

In addition, Israel and Egypt are the two largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, each receiving billions of dollars annually. Egypt has received more than $50 billion in aid, mostly military support, since the Camp David’s accords in 1978. The U.S. provides Israel with 20 percent of its military budget.

The fall of Mubarak could be the beginning of massive change across the region. Tunisia has revolted and replaced its government. The president of Yemen has announced he will not seek another term, nor will his son run for office. In Jordan, the pro-U.S. king remains in place but he has replaced the government. 

The people of the region are on the edge of massive change that likely will further undermine U.S. interests – unless the mistakes of past U.S. policy are acknowledged and President Barack Obama leads transformational change.

Egypt is one example among many of the U.S. government being on the wrong side of the people’s aspirations. Giving billions of dollars and selling sophisticated weapons to Mubarak’s regime, despite his abusive, autocratic rule of Egypt, are now coming back to haunt America.

Tear-gas canisters marked “Made in the USA” and U.S.-made jets flying overhead to intimidate Egyptian protesters demonstrate the mistakes of U.S. foreign policy under multiple presidents.

Thus far, the United States is denying the reality of its failed policy. When WikiLeaks documents showed the abuse and crimes of U.S. wars as well as the corruption of diplomacy the reaction was to search for some way to prosecute Julian Assange and to mistreat PFC Bradley Manning, the alleged leaker, by putting him in pre-trial solitary-like confinement. 

The WikiLeaks documents show the U.S. spying on allies, bribing and threatening them, supporting coup's against democratically elected officials, allying with dictators and royalists, looking the other way when governments the U.S. put in power torture civilians, and U.S. troops killing civilians for no good reason. 

With these documents available in the media and on the web, President Obama can no longer deny reality and retain credibility.

President Obama’s credibility is also on the line in the Arab world. On June 4, 2009, he gave a speech to the Muslim and Arab world, ironically from Cairo calling for “A New Beginning.”

But so far, Egyptian opposition leaders have been unimpressed with how little U.S. policy has actually changed. Mohamed ElBaradei is already calling Obama administration comments on Mubarak a “farce” and urged President Obama to take more forceful action or it will cost the United States “whatever is left” of its credibility

In his 2009 speech, President Obama promised the Muslim and Arab world that he would speak the truth:

“As the Holy Koran tells us, ‘Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.’ That is what I will try to do - to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart.”

The time has come to speak the truth about Hosni Mubarak. … President Obama’s failure to forcefully act at this historic juncture will lead him to the mistake he acknowledged could be easily made:

“Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.”

This is the time to act to get the United States on the right side of history and begin to make up for decades of mistaken foreign policy in the region for, as he said, “whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it.”

In urging the exit of Mubarak, President Obama can remind the people of Egypt and the world of his words in Cairo about the human yearning for real democracy:

“I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”

In acknowledging this, President Obama can also point to those who want to see security and stability because we all know that democracies are “ultimately more stable, successful and secure.”

Opposing Mubarak will not be enough. The U.S. is likely to see an Islamist-leaning government in Egypt unless broader changes are made in U.S. policy in the region, including the U.S. relationship with Israel. Failure to face this reality virtually ensures democratized Arab countries will be hostile to the United States.

In his Cairo speech, President Obama described some high ideals that are now achievable because: “We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning.” 

The time is now to make that new beginning.

Kevin Zeese is executive director of Voters For Peace (www.VotersForPeace.US).

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