Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Matching Deed to Commitment

In his first major interview last night, President Obama made an appeal to the Muslim world writ large to give his administration an opportunity to rebuild trust with America. He spoke -- eloquently as usually -- of the common "hopes and dreams" shared by people of all faiths. Obama hopes to use this thread to begin weaving a better relationship with the Islamic world through "respect and partnership". Here's a transcript of the interview.

The following excerpt was the key part of his comments: 

"But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration's actions. And I think that what you will see over the next several years is that I'm not going to agree with everything that some Muslim leader may say... but I think that what you'll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity."

Unfortunately, Obama may be eating his commitment early on. Last Friday, US military drones made another incursion into Pakistan near the Afghan border. Missiles were purportedly fired from the unmanned aircraft in two strikes at Al-Qaeda and militant targets in Waziristan, which is currently controlled by the Taliban. Together, the two strikes killed between 17-22 people, about half of which were civilians -- and three were children. These strikes are a continuation of a secret authorization by President Bush in July 2007 to fight militants in the loosely-controlled tribal regions of Pakistan.

This policy must be halted now. For the moment, put aside the fact that almost every one of the 30 strikes in the past 7 months has killed innocent people and children. From a pragmatic perspective, these air raids are undermining the US's goals. Although local civilians usually abhor the Taliban's rule and the violence of militants, every time a civilian is killed -- especially a child -- the Pakistani public is outraged. This tears down support for current and future US policies amongst the Pakistani and Islamic world, and it loses support for the already-struggling government of Pakistan. When these American incursions continue unabated by current politicians in Pakistan, then those politicians -- the people who are willing to cooperate with the US -- lose support. 

In situations like this, people tend to look for security. Don't be surprised to see a more hardline, anti-US government take the reigns in Pakistan if the civilian deaths continue.  And if this happens, the US mission to bring stability to Afghanistan becomes immeasurably more difficult (as if it wasn't already in bad shape). Moreover, a less stable Pakistan threatens to bring the entire South Asian region into conflict (recall the terror in Mumbai); the US can hardly manage to put that vase back together after it's broken.

These attacks into Pakistan erode Obama's (and America's) moral authority. Granted, the new president has done much in his first week to repeal the damage to American principles -- begun closing Guantanamo, restoring habeas corpus, halting wire-tapping, conforming CIA interrogation with law. Indeed, his interview yesterday was meant to began mending deep wounds to American soft power. 

Obama wisely pointed out that he will be judged on his actions, not his words. He made an explicit commitment to listen and show respect to Muslims around the world. Yet as Pakistanis plead for innocent deaths to abate, Obama remains silent. Less he wants to discredit himself in the first 14 days of his presidency, Obama should halt the drone attacks in Pakistan immediately. 


  1. It is refreshing that America is no longer turning a deaf ear to Muslim countries.

    Your comments about the current administrations actions are pertinent. Lets hope that this administration wont start to speak out of both sides the their mouths. I don’t believe that will be the case. Still, the current administration should be actively seeking to repeal these executive orders that kill more innocents than combatants.

    As you list the bric-a-brac of actions taken in the first 14 days of Obama’s presidency I’m willing to bet that this incident is a simple blip on the radar. Still, it is our responsibility to be clamorous about our leader’s inconsistent actions in accordance with their words. This is only a modicum of ill evidence. But, I wouldn’t let up—sharp eye, Kevin. As usual, good post.

  2. Did Obama say tht he was receptive to Muslim countries that were willing to work in peace but he had a clenched fist for those that intended us harm. Doesn't that mean Al-Queda? I don't know how we pursue Al-Queda without innocent people getting hurt, since they mingle within civilian circles. Cindy

  3. Obama said, "if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us." He was referring to governments that do not want to negotiate with the US (i.e. "clenching the fist" is defiance). He is not talking about Muslim countries. Furthermore, Al-Qaeda is a network of people across borders; it is not a county.

    Thus, it cannot be treated like a country. You don't fight sub-state criminals the same way you would fight a war against an entire country.

    Imagine this, Cindy: in an impoverished neighborhood on the south side of Chicago (Al-Qaeda thrives in places where people are struggling), a local, violent gang begins to meet up. In order to combat these criminals, the police launch mortars into the residential neighborhood. As a result, the streets and homes in the area are heavily damaged or destroyed and half a dozen innocent people are killed.

    When the residents express outrage and sorrow, the government and others in society say, "Criminals mingle among civilians; deaths are natural."

    Of course you do not agree with such heavy-handed tactics in your own society; why should criminals elsewhere be handled in a vastly different manner?

    Instead, these people should be weeded out using the only discriminate tactic available: troops or police on the ground. In Pakistan, this is unlikely to be US troops (citizens are heavily opposed to US intervention within Pakistani borders). So the key is to figure out how to persuade or assist the Pakistani government and military in combating the criminals within its own borders.

    In the long-term (months and years in the future), the US and Pakistan should focus on improving the livelihood of people in these tribal areas. If they were better off, then people may have the wherewithal to reject criminals in their midst.

    For a few more specifics on how to do this, read the recent article by David Ignatius: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/28/AR2009012802953.html?nav=rss_opinion/columns.