Persisting Orientalism in the Obama Administration: Part 2

Despite his promise of change, Obama's approach to US-Israeli relations and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is influenced by a persisting American Orientalism, which has its roots in the rhetoric of the first settlers. This is the final part.  

To fully understand the Obama Administration's discourse and its practice, it is crucial to establish when the terminology for Israel/Jews and Arabs emerged. Possible answers could be the creation of Israel and its subsequent victories over Arab states during the Cold War era, or when considering the language of terrorism, the 9/11 attacks. Significantly however, a basis for the double-standards in Barack Obama's discourse and practice, differentiating between Israel as a partner and Western ally, and Arabs as Oriental "others", is rooted in centuries-old American Orientalism.

The Roots of American Orientalism

The term “Orientalism” as a critical concept in the study of the Middle East, was introduced by the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Sa'id. For Sa'id, Orientalism was a concept based upon the distinction between the West which is “rational, developed, humane and superior and the Orient [...] aberrant, undeveloped [and] inferior.” Important for the analysis of current power relations is the idea of the concept as a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” The designation as the Orient involved a silencing of Oriental voices, since the Orient was not designated as capable to define itself. In general terms, the issue of self-definition is directly related to the control over the discourse on an issue like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In its American version, Orientalism can be traced back to the early Puritan settlers. An important part of the relationship between the United States, the Holy Land and the Arab world was America's self-definition as the “Israel of our time” and consequently a likening of the settlers' situation with that of the Israelites. After the American immersion into the Orient in the 19th century with an upsurge in missionary activities, the idea of establishing the symbolic Kingdom of God in America was transformed into establishing it in the Holy Land. An important contribution of the rising American millenarian sects to American views of the Orient was, according to historian Douglas Little, the special function given to the Jewish people who were seen as the foundation of the Holy Kingdom. The idea of the Jews as the true, chosen people became a crucial part of the Western Judeo-Christian heritage.

However, it would be incorrect to assume a constantly positive view of Jews by the American public and government officials. Michael Hunt argues that Jews and Arabs were both situated close to the bottom of a hierarchy of race, which was influenced by “Anglo-Saxon racism and Social Darwinism.” The highly consequential Westernization of the Jews was related to World War II, the Holocaust and the subsequent founding of the state of Israel.

At the same time, according to Little, Arabs and Muslims were stereotyped as anti-Western terrorists. Anti-Muslim prejudice can be traced back to the United States' founding fathers, who saw the Muslim world with its Oriental despotism as the opposite of their republican ideas. This tradition is found in US Envoy James Harbord's warning in 1919 to avoid involvement in the Middle East due to a traditional lawlessness of Arabs and Kurds. Moreover, in the shaping of the American public discourse, magazines like the National Geographic played an important role in fostering the image of irresponsible, often fanatical and inferior Arabs in contrast to relatively westernized Jews, “transforming the land of milk and honey into a western outpost in the eastern Mediterranean.”

Israel and the Perpetuation of Orientalist Stereotypes

After Israel´s creation, the image of the Jewish state as the biblical David and the Arab states as Goliath became a prominent feature of the US governmental and public discourse. According to Little, many Americans saw the crucial 1967 Israeli victory over several Arab states as the fulfillment of David´s triumph over Goliath. An important event for the image of the Arab and Palestinian "terrorist" was the 1972 killings of Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich. The fighting of Palestinian terrorists afterwards became a constant theme of US foreign policy in the Middle East.

The rhetoric on terrorism, not only in the Bush Administration but also in Obama's, has to be seen in a historical manner connected to these events. Statements about a need for vengeance rooted in Arab culture before the 1972 killings, are nowadays mirrored by Congressman Eric Cantor's remarks about Palestinian culture being “infused with resentment and hatred.” Ideas about irrational Arabs and their fanaticism, also made their way into academic circles as found in the influential work of Bernard Lewis and Samuel P. Huntington.

In this historical context, one can clearly see the roots of Obama´s rhetoric and policies towards Israel and Hamas. Obama's stressing of America's and Israel's common “cultural and historical ties” and his efforts to historicize the Jewish plight in discussions about Israel´s legitimacy, stand in stark contrast to his rhetoric on Hamas. As noted in part 1, the US president did acknowledge general Palestinian suffering in its historical dimension. However, with regards to Hamas' struggle against Israel, we do not find similar statements. This is related to the fact that Obama may have shunned some of the “War on Terror” language, but he continues to see Hamas solely and overwhelmingly in the framework of terrorism. The point here is not to dispute that the Islamist group has employed terrorist methods, such as suicide bombings against civilians. It is rather that Hamas is a complex organization, playing multiple roles in Palestinian society, and inevitably a crucial partner for peace. Moreover, the prevailing oversimplification prevents any meaningful progress towards a peace agreement.

Nevertheless, Hamas' clear victory in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections showed that the movement has significant support among the Palestinian populace. If it had not been for the post-election violence, resulting in the split-up of the Palestinian territories into a Hamas-controlled Gaza and Fatah gaining control over the West Bank, Hamas would have been the freely and fairly elected majority party in the Palestinian legislature.

Obama did acknowledge that Hamas has a certain level of support but he never acted accordingly, thereby neglecting the political will of a large portion of Palestinians whose “legitimate aspiration” he had vowed to support. Indeed, Hamas is the Oriental “other” whose voice is silenced.

Despite Khaled Meshaal's assurances regarding the reactionary nature of Hamas' violence, its eagerness to engage in dialogue with the United States, and willingness to reach a compromise with Israel, Obama did not live up to his promise of “direct diplomacy without preconditions.” On the contrary, the US president has never waived clear preconditions for talks with Hamas (including the acknowledgement of Israel's right to exist), while he maintains regular talks with the Israeli government, despite the latter's refusal to halt the construction of settlements as demanded by the US government. This is a clear example of double-standards at play.

The issue is that these double-standards, visible in discourse and policies, are in part rooted in the dichotomous Orientalist differentiation between the East/Orient (Hamas being a part of that) and the West (Israel being a Western ally).

Another demonstration of the silencing of Hamas as the Oriental “other”, was former US Envoy George Mitchell's Middle East tour in 2009 to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Despite Hamas' important participation for a lasting peace, Mitchell did not meet with any members of the Islamist group. The stipulation by the Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi in 2010, that the US held secret talks with the Islamist movement was denied by US officials.

Moreover, another Orientalist feature at play in this matter is a generalization of the Orient, in this case related to other Islamist movements. According to Corinna Mullin, Obama´s Chief Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan, applied the “extremist” label to members of Hamas, Hezbollah and Somalian warlords at the same time; consequently subsuming very different actors under this essentializing label. In line with Orientalist expectations about the incapacity of change into a liberal direction, Obama reiterated Hamas' alleged plan to destroy Israel, as stated in its charter. However, as argued, this has to be seen in light of Meshaal's statements and the exclusion of this passage from the 2006 election manifesto.

Overall, statements about Hamas are mostly de-contextualized and focus overwhelmingly on its violent methods, reducing the group solely to a security threat. By upholding this discourse, the Obama Administration helps to justify violent Israeli actions against the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

The US Elections

One can see the potentially transformative power that the Arab Uprisings may have on the discourse regarding Islamist movements. However, so far, there has been no substantial change in the discourse on Hamas. This might be partly explained by the constraints of the US election campaign, but the last few years have not been very promising. Unless there is a real change in ending the double-standards approach, it is hard to envisage the US as a genuine, impartial and successful mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is also crucial to highlight that certain actors like pro-Israel lobbyists (such as AIPAC) have a vested interest in perpetuating this discourse on the Palestinians and especially Hamas. As impressively demonstrated in John Mearsheimer´s and Stephen Walt´s book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, pro-Israel lobbyists have significant leverage to influence the discourse and policies towards Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle East. It is not that the concept of American Orientalism can fully explain the nature of the discourse and current policies, but that it is a pivotal part of a complex picture which entails material factors like the pro-Israel lobby.

A second term for Obama could give him more freedom to act without a looming reelection campaign. However, the degree of freedom will depend on the composition of Congress and the continuous influence of the pro-Israel lobby. Despite Obama's promises of change, along with the initial dominance of Democrats in Congress, it is not easy to move away from a long-lasting legacy like the American outlook on the Middle East.

A Mitt Romney presidency is viewed very critically by many Middle East experts, as a recent article on Fair Observer argued. In the last presidential debate, the Republican candidate made it clear that he would pursue a more assertive foreign policy in the Middle East, which would include a very strong partnership with Israel. In the infamous video leaked by the website Mother Jones, Romney stated at a private fundraiser that Palestinians do not want peace and are “committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel.” He also underlined that he sees peace as almost impossible to attain; a grim outlook for someone who might be in the position to renew the stalled peace talks.

As was the case with Obama, one has to judge actions rather than words but if a President Romney acts as presidential candidate Romney talks, the prospects for a Palestinian state are dismal. So far, Palestinians have not experienced change they can believe in.    

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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