The Common Good

Obama's Victory and Middle East Democracy

A curious thing has happened as Americans were choosing their first black president. Democracy suddenly ceased to be a bad word for many genuine democrats in the Middle East.

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In the aftermath of the war on Iraq and as part of President George W. Bush's attempts to win the hearts and minds of Arabs, a public democracy campaign was launched aimed at injecting Arabs with the democracy virus. Millions of dollars and years later, the effort had been pronounced a failure. Democracy salespeople had a problem selling their goods while the Bush administration was occupying Iraq, supporting the continued occupation and illegal settlements of the West Bank, while simultaneously placing a worldwide financial siege on an elected Palestinian government.

Arabs easily dismissed the democracy surge by simply pointing to what was being done by Americans, and in the name of Americans, in the region. Scenes and images from the Abu Ghraib prison to Guantanamo poured cold water on efforts to win over Arabs to democracy, U.S.-style.

The argument passed around in coffee shops and sitting rooms throughout the Arab world was that American democracy is in reality a facade: while elections do take place on the surface, a behind-the-scenes process led by a handful of people really decides who rules America.

This continued to be the leading anti-democracy argument -- until this week.

The election of Barack Obama, America's first black president and one with Islamic roots and a platform that calls for ending the war in Iraq and talking to Iran, shattered these arguments.

A new, more robust argument has been born with this election. Obama and his savvy campaign team won over millions of voters not only in America but around the world. The campaign's emphasis on the youth (youths are the majority of the Arab population) and the Internet allowed so many young people in the Arab world to follow the entire process.

The election of Obama shattered all previous stereotypes and succeeded in reinvigorating and reenergizing true democrats throughout the Arab world. However, for many in the Arab and Islamic worlds the litmus test of any sane U.S. foreign policy will be how it deals with the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestine and the violation of international law through the support of illegal Jewish settlement building in occupied territories and the construction of a wall deep inside Palestinian lands.

Obama seems to be serious about one promise regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. He has said that he will not wait four or eight years to get involved but will pursue peace in the Middle East from day one. This became evident last week when one of his senior advisers -- Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs Prof. Daniel Kurtzer -- made yet another visit to the region. Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, met with senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders and will no doubt play a senior role in the Obama administration.

The next U.S. president will have an easier role in trying to bring about peace in the Middle East. His philosophy of talking to one's enemies will certainly be an improvement on Bush's military unilateralism and political exclusionism. And although Obama has favored talking to Iran but not to Hamas, it is hard to see him blocking indirect talks with the Palestinian Islamic movement for ideological reasons. When Obama looks into the Palestine-Israeli conflict, he will not be ignorant of its history and the justness of its cause. His days in Chicago put him in touch with people like Prof. Rashid Khalidi, the late Edward Said and Palestinian activist Ali Abu Nimeh, just to name a few of the people who have met and influenced the former University of Chicago professor.

But perhaps the ace in Obama's pocket as he tackles this contentious conflict will be the official position of the U.S. government over the years. Washington has repeatedly opposed Israeli occupation of Palestinian land since 1967 and has called for its end. It has been consistently and publicly against settlement activities, and President Bush has articulated a policy that calls for a viable, contiguous Palestinian state on the lands occupied in 1967.

The U.S. has also opposed Israel's unilateral annexation of east Jerusalem and along with every nation on the planet has refused to recognize Israel's application of Israeli law to its residents.

Furthermore, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stated publicly and repeatedly that a Palestinian state is in the national interest of the United States.

So if Obama wants to encourage Arab democrats and bring about peace in this volatile region, all he will have to do is to dust off U.S. policy positions toward the region and make sure that all parties implement them immediately and without hesitation.

In addition to his stunning victory, this will provide Arab democrats with the ammunition needed not only to push for peace but also to bring about democratic reform in a region in bad need for an end to tyranny, radicalism, and dictatorships.

Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist, professor at Princeton University, and founder of the Arab world's first Internet radio station, Ammannet. A version of this article originally appeared in The Jerusaelm Post and is reprinted here with the author's permission.

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