America’s Sorry Policy

Published on Foreign Policy in Focus, by JOHN FEFFER, June 9, 2009.

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 …

… 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.
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