It would have helped if Obama had the courage to talk about what everyone in the Middle East was talking about. No, it wasn’t the US withdrawal from Iraq. They knew about that. They expected the beginning of the end of Guantanamo and the probable appointment of George Mitchell as a Middle East envoy was the least that was expected. Of course, Obama did refer to “slaughtered innocents”, but these were not quite the “slaughtered innocents” the Arabs had in mind.
There was the phone call yesterday to Mahmoud Abbas. Maybe Obama thinks he’s the leader of the Palestinians, but as every Arab knows, except perhaps Mr Abbas, he is the leader of a ghost government, a near-corpse only kept alive with the blood transfusion of international support and the “full partnership” Obama has apparently offered him, whatever “full” means. And it was no surprise to anyone that Obama also made the obligatory call to the Israelis.
But for the people of the Middle East, the absence of the word “Gaza” – indeed, the word “Israel” as well – was the dark shadow over Obama’s inaugural address. Didn’t he care? Was he frightened? Did Obama’s young speech-writer not realise that talking about black rights – why a black man’s father might not have been served in a restaurant 60 years ago – would concentrate Arab minds on the fate of a people who gained the vote only three years ago but were then punished because they voted for the wrong people? It wasn’t a question of the elephant in the china shop. It was the sheer amount of corpses heaped up on the floor of the china shop.
Sure, it’s easy to be cynical. Arab rhetoric has something in common with Obama’s clichés: “hard work and honesty, courage and fair play … loyalty and patriotism”. But however much distance the new President put between himself and the vicious regime he was replacing, 9/11 still hung like a cloud over New York. We had to remember “the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke”. Indeed, for Arabs, the “our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred” was pure Bush; the one reference to “terror”, the old Bush and Israeli fear word, was a worrying sign that the new White House still hasn’t got the message. Hence we had Obama, apparently talking about Islamist groups such as the Taliban who were “slaughtering innocents” but who “cannot outlast us”. As for those in the speech who are corrupt and who “silence dissent”, presumably intended to be the Iranian government, most Arabs would associate this habit with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (who also, of course, received a phone call from Obama yesterday), King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and a host of other autocrats and head-choppers who are supposed to be America’s friends in the Middle East.
Hanan Ashrawi got it right. The changes in the Middle East – justice for the Palestinians, security for the Palestinians as well as for the Israelis, an end to the illegal building of settlements for Jews and Jews only on Arab land, an end to all violence, not just the Arab variety – had to be “immediate” she said, at once. But if the gentle George Mitchell’s appointment was meant to answer this demand, the inaugural speech, a real “B-minus” in the Middle East, did not.
The friendly message to Muslims, “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect”, simply did not address the pictures of the Gaza bloodbath at which the world has been staring in outrage. Yes, the Arabs and many other Muslim nations, and, of course, most of the world, can rejoice that the awful Bush has gone. So, too, Guantanamo. But will Bush’s torturers and Rumsfeld’s torturers be punished? Or quietly promoted to a job where they don’t have to use water and cloths, and listen to men screaming?
Sure, give the man a chance. Maybe George Mitchell will talk to Hamas – he’s just the man to try – but what will the old failures such as Denis Ross have to say, and Rahm Emanuel and, indeed, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton? More a sermon than an Obama inaugural, even the Palestinians in Damascus spotted the absence of those two words: Palestine and Israel. So hot to touch they were, and on a freezing Washington day, Obama wasn’t even wearing gloves.