Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine - Israel, Politics of Empire
When President elect Obama takes office in January the clamour of voices in the Middle East and here for more peaceful relationships based less on threats, harsh pronouncements, and more on persistent talking may have a chance. That chance is elevated significantly if people like you and I bring our concerns to the table persistently and persuasively. Obama knows how to listen; it’s important that we speak. This is not the time to withdraw into our cocoons to practice impatient or irritated advocacy.
At least two themes that have been present in the campaign virtually from the beginning can help sustain our energy. Talking to adversaries was particularly emphasized early on although it was less prominent as the campaign gathered momentum. Sometimes this is referred to as soft diplomacy, a term that power brokers are reluctant to use because it can imply weakness. People in power dare never look weak in a democracy like the United States, a super power and financially strapped empire.
The other theme that characterized the campaign from its earliest stage was change. The language of change has been included in every campaign, cause or movement that I have been part of. In the world where I have worked it is almost a rule that change comes from the bottom. You think you are part of something real when the word “change” is thrown around. Change is part of the adrenaline. But using the term without a thoughtful strategy is like trying to drive a two-wheel drive vehicle through a bank of snow. You get stuck.
I believe that in the Obama campaign the heavy reliance on the change theme arises directly from community organizing experience and the Black church which he embraced until his harsh critics wedged him away from his pastor of so many years. You can see his willingness to distance himself from his church as a lapse in judgement or you can see it as a generic characteristic of a good organizer whose allies and enemies are always ready to use, misuse or exploit the emerging moments when success (in this case getting elected President) appears plausible.
Change is one of those words that can be used to cover and uncover good and bad. For community organizers the process of change means identifying the issue after lots of direct conversation with people. The next step is crucial, figuring out the avenues for grass roots people to be involved in the process. Without this step there is no change because economics, media, political and sometimes ecclesiastical policy is stuck in the way things have always been. This is when change gets messy and tempers flare. Change oriented people including pastors and community organizers are called bad names. Long held images of class, race and religion are invoked to keep things as they always have been. In the process of change friends and enemies are disturbed because both rely upon the status quo for continuity and safety. I believe honest talk and confidence that real change can happen, are deeply rooted in Obama because he has seen it work.
I don’t believe that just talk alone assures success for repair of the tangled conditions in the Middle East but I do believe that Obama, the community organizer, now on a world stage may have integrated some lessons from the grass roots that can help. Most of us will be frustrated and impatient as we see the same old names marching to cabinet and staff appointments. We are assured that they know how to get things done in Washington. We’ll see.
The habit of the new President of seeking advice from various voices, also a characteristic of a good organizer, will help. It is within our power to consistently remind this new administration of the core values from which it sprang and remember that change comes usually uncredited from the grass roots. In other words let’s gear up for the long march, a march that starts from the bottom.
Obama has already courted the Israeli lobby and has made several unequivocal pronouncements of support for Israel. His appointment of a chief of staff with long family roots in militant Zionism may disappoint us but need not. These are not the only people Obama has talked to over the last 25 years about Palestinian and Israeli blood and US complicity. He knows as much as any of these insiders that the passing of years makes a real solution even more difficult and that the fair exercise of US words and power can move things along.
He knows that a father of anti communism, Richard Nixon, was the one who led the breakthrough with China. He knows that the core belief in fairness must be lived out and that the process requires unexpected partners who can be cultivated over time. A new conservative government in Israel may empower the neo conservative voices in North America, but their influence is on the wane at least for now. Peace from the Mediterranean to Pakistan, sometimes incorrectly lumped together and called the Middle East, will be heavily influenced by what occurs in Jerusalem.
Obama knows that his promise to bring home the combat troops from Iraq in 16 months – from population centers by mid 2009 and completely by 2011 – must be honored or he will pay dearly. As the Iraqi government becomes more authoritarian either with civilian or military leaders or both, the grand Baghdad experiment will be increasingly criticized from all sides not the least from those neo colonial voices urging the US to stay and “finish” the job.
This is why the strategy of talking with adversaries, so emblazoned on the early rhetoric of the Obama campaign, must be initiated from day one. Talking does not mean that those of us who want to support Obama will always learn about the conversations. I really don’t care if the conversations are confidential, in fact I assume they will be. I just want them to happen after a full review of what can be done to loosen up the stalemate. This is where the discussions about nuclear bombs, deterrents and delivery systems needs new thinking – from the context of the entire region, Israel, Pakistan and Iran. Has anyone noticed that Iran may have legitimate fears?
Most of us have forgotten or perhaps never knew that Iranians cheered the exit of Saddam as well as the end of Taliban rule (at least for a time) in Afghanistan, though the subdued nature of their cheering and reasons for cheers were not like we may have witnessed in the US. I suspect that the 70% of the Iranian population less than 30 years of age will be curious about this new American president and how he will relate to their own aging religious leadership and themselves. Breaking through the language of enemy and evil will require fresh initiatives from the new President early in the life of the new administration. Our voices, occasional delegations to Iran and other grass roots efforts will help make that new thinking crisp for what could be a new era.
This brings us to the third pillar of conflict of the region, Afghanistan. I really don’t know if Obama believes he will be able to chase down Bin Laden in Pakistan or if he did, anything would change. Things get said in campaigns that don’t last beyond campaigns and I hope that this is one of them. One President had to eat words like that. I hope Obama knows better. The Russians once were convinced that more troops would bring victory in Afghanistan. They lost their empire along the way and left behind a government that crumbled into corruption in the face of war lords and then the Taliban. The players from that era are still around and corruption in the modern Afghan state is mounting again. A community organizer knows that those are the people who will have to be talked to and the solution may not look pretty. This will mean a major redrawing of the lines and strategies regarding world wide terrorism, a movement that is now older, a little tired and much better understood than ten years ago.
People like me are sometimes chastised for failing to “stand up” against violent terrorists. In real politics I know that states must protect their populations from terror; not doing so is a violation of the myth of national existence. I have seen first hand how the experience of terror across the Middle East has touched so many. Terrorism comes from people who think they can make things better through violence and somewhere along the way their struggle becomes a holy and righteous war, a freedom struggle, something worth dying for.
Let us be honest, people at the bottom have experienced terrorism by every army, armed group above ground and underground in the region. One nation’s defence of a way of life is another nation’s experience of terror. The use of house raids, smart bombs, predator (drone) aircraft armed with Hellfire missiles, and any weapons of mass destruction threatens all of us. Empires and great powers rarely change their ways without significant pressure. Our work may begin with just a few words. We can change one piece of the complicated equation in the Middle East, the part that the US directs. Words are completed with action. One action that we may need to prepare ourselves for is the development of pastoral teams to visit the victims of terror be they in Gaza, Fallujah, Mossul (ancient Nineveh), or the mountains of the Frontier Territories of Pakistan.
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