As one of millions of people in the “Middle East”,* I have been watching Mr Obama’s progress from relative obscurity to presidency over the past two years. His triumph in spite of the color of his skin is a mark of progress in human history. His call for freedom and equality for all is most encouraging after several decades during which the United States has tried to dominate the rest of the world. To be sure, other US presidents have made similar calls, but Mr Obama’s do sound more sincere, especially against the background of the past eight years.
However, once again from a “Middle Eastern” perspective, there have been worrying signs about the specific ideas President Obama may have in mind for this region. Prior to his presidential campaign, Mr Obama was noted for his expressions of sympathy for the Palestinians. During the campaign, he was a consistent supporter of Israel.
There were further indications of his orientation when he appointed as the White House chief of staff Mr Rahm Emanuel, whose father had been a member of the armed group, Irgun, that fought for the creation of Israel, and who himself had served with the Israeli army, albeit as a civilian volunteer.
Yet another sign was Mr Obama’s virtual silence during three weeks of Israeli attacks on Gaza, which conveniently ended such that the international media’s attention would focus on his inauguration, rather than on the suffering of the Palestinian people.
And yesterday, during the inauguration, there were a series of details that made one more concerned about the policies and practices of the new administration. Inaugurations are symbolic occasions and the comments below also concern symbols. They may, therefore, be proven wrong by future developments. I hope they will be.
1. After three weeks of war in Gaza as a result of which at least 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis had been killed, an Israeli-American violin player, Itzhak Perlman, was a member of the inauguration quartet. While Mr Perlman is renowned for his musical prowess, rather than his political views, he could have been complemented by another musician from an Islamic background.
Or perhaps, the conductor and pianist, Daniel Barenboim, who has both Israeli and Palestinian citizenships, could have been invited. There may well be other musical occasions to make up for what many will see as a serious error of judgment. The sooner, the better.
2. The orchestra played past the midday point, when the presidential oath was due to have been taken. Although it was explained that legally Mr Obama was president after midday even without taking the oath, better timing would have given the impression of a much more orderly process, with every second accounted for. Precision and punctuality are among the many Western traits that people in our region have been brought up to admire and emulate. Their lapse on such a grand occasion was not impressive.
3. In his speech, Mr Obama gave the promise of remaking the United States, including a commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law. But just before that, he and the country’s most senior authority on law, Chief Justice John Roberts, had stumbled through the 35-word oath of office that Mr Obama was taking.
4. In his speech, President Obama mentioned various battles, including Khe Sahn in Vietnam, as occasions where “the greatness of our nation” had been “earned”. Not a very good choice, even though most people would sympathize both with the Vietnamese victims of that war, and with the young Americans who lost their lives in that most futile adventure.
5. At the end of the speech, he talked about a scene from another battle, involving George Washington. Here, the images and the tone of his voice were similar to those used by many Shia clergymen in Iran during the mourning month of Moharram in sermons which, no matter how they begin, always end up with emotional scenes from Imam Hossein’s fatal battle in Karbala, to control people's feelings by making them cry. (I admit this point is so culturally specific that it may not resonate with many other people.)
6. Finally, here’s another remark on the same part of the speech, from the weblog of the American weekly, The New Republic, which supports Mr Obama’s Democratic Party:
Actually, Obama was not really talking about Washington, but using GW to quote Thomas Paine from THE AMERICAN CRISIS. Sadly and shamefully, however, Obama did not mention Paine by name. Notably, FDR [Roosevelt] in his Fireside Chat of Feb 23, 1942, spoke of GW's retreat across NJ to the Delaware...and finished by quoting Paine, citing his name, and saying that Paine spoke for Americans in 1776 and he speaks for us today. So far Obama is no FDR. But just as FDR was pushed to progressive policies, so too might Obama be pushed.
The comment has led to a discussion on the weblog about George Washington which may continue for a while. Here, suffice it to say that President Roosevelt seems like a very good model for President Obama to follow. He was so popular in Iran that some forty years ago, a family friend of mine in a small Iranian town named his son Roosevelt. Now, with a pleasant twist, the United States has a president with the middle name, Hussein, which is common among Iranians and many Moslems elsewhere, as a symbol of commitment to truth and justice. Mr Obama’s first name, Barack, means blessing in Arabic. An auspicious set of symbols with which to end these observations.
As one of billions of people whose lives will be affected by many a decision that President Obama will take, and as one who would have voted for him – in spite of my reservations - had there been a global election, I wish him well in the great responsibility that he has undertaken.
* I use the term “Middle East” for the sake of simplicity, even though it is geographically incorrect from the point of view of someone who lives in the region.
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