Obama and the wrong side of history

By Bernd Debusmann
May 21, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate—Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.—

Ringing words, smoothly delivered: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Did that memorable line from President Barack Obama’s inaugural address on January 20 mean his administration would break with a long American tradition of paying lip service to democracy and human rights while supporting authoritarian rulers friendly to Washington? Too early to say for sure, but probably not.

Four months into his presidency, Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, lean towards pragmatism over ideology and principle, closer in foreign policy outlook to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger than to George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice.

On her first official visit to China, Clinton said concern over human rights must not “interfere” with cooperation on the global financial crisis, climate change and security issues such as North Korea’s nuclear arms programme.

As for those on the wrong side of history, one leader who fits Obama’s description is President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, from where the U.S. president is scheduled to make a high-profile speech to the Muslim world early in June.

A long-time U.S. ally, Mubarak has been in power since 1981. He won uncontested elections four times. The fifth and latest, in 2005, featured charges of vote-rigging and the arrest of his main opponent.

The U.S. Department of State, which issues annual reports on human rights, gives Egypt poor grades and notes “the government’s respect for freedoms of press, association and religion declined during the year (2008).” No unclenched fist here.

To boot, Mubarak has played host and acted as a sponsor to Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes in Darfur. The court issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest in March.

At the height of the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda,” the second-term drive for “democracy promotion,” Washington publicly scolded Mubarak. Rice, during a visit to Cairo, announced a break with the past:

“For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the region. And we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of the people.”


By 2005, when Rice made her democratic aspirations speech, the U.S. image in the Arab world was so badly tarnished by the war in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and Guantanamo that few Arabs were inclined to believe anything the Bush administration said.

Her remark stood out for its bluntness and its venue but the idea was not new. Support for democracy against dictatorships has been a key theme of American foreign policy since the U.S. rose to big power status at the turn of the 20th century.

That did not keep the U.S. from overthrowing democratically-elected leaders it did not like (Chile’s Salvador Allende, Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz) and propping up dictators it did (the Shah of Iran, Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines). Saying one thing and doing another earned the U.S. an enduring reputation for hypocrisy.

The Bush administration’s enthusiasm for democracy promotion in the Middle East fizzled rapidly after the Islamist group Hamas, shunned as a terrorist group by the West, won a resounding electoral victory in Gaza in 2006. Since then, part of the American foreign policy establishment has framed the alternatives in the region as Islamists or authoritarians.

If there were free elections today in Egypt, many experts predict that the Muslim Brotherhood, whose aim is the establishment of an Islamic state, would win easily, an uncomfortable prospect for Washington.

To push an Arab peace plan Obama wants to make part of an effort to create a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel, Mubarak is clearly a better partner even though he may be on the wrong side of history. The plan offers Israel normal relations with all Arab states in return for withdrawing from territory it seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The plan was first floated by Saudi Arabia, another staunch U.S. ally far from democracy and prone to silence dissent.

How (and whether) Obama intends to persuade countries on the wrong side of history to switch to the right side should become clear in his speech to the Muslim world. It could be a turning point in America’s relations with a fifth of the world’s population, but there is a lot that could go wrong, even for a president with Obama’s charisma and outstanding political skills. Not to mention a middle name that resonates: Hussein.

The goal he set himself for the speech, spelt out before he took office, is ambitious: “Reboot America’s image” in the Muslim world. Words alone won’t do it, but they are a start.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

America’s image in the Middle East has never been good stemming from the policies and actions of business men and politicians since before WW II. The American population may have a short memory and shorter attention spans, but those in the Middle East do not forget. To understand our image problem in the area, we must understand the past.

Simply put, mostly US Oil businessmen basically ripped off the Arab world for decades after oil was discovered in the area by “trading” cars and other items of material to the Sheiks, Sultans, and tribal leaders while making millions in profits. Rather like how European settlers traded the Native Americans beads and clothes for all their land, more than a fair deal from one sides point of view, and a heinous crime from the other.

To add insult to injury, The United States government backed the Arab worlds old enemy, Israel, and without any kind of consent from any Palestinian or Arabian, the U.N., backed by Brittan, France, and USA, simply took land from Arabs to give to Israel. Put yourself in Arabian shoes – The world is against you, businessmen lie and cheat you, other Nations Governments back your enemy, who the whole of Arabia expelled from the land centuries ago(you’ll get a different story why depending on who you talk to), steal your land, and your religion is under attack from Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church, and Jewish movements around the world.

And the Bush administration told us the Islamic world hates us for our freedom. Well, I guess I would hate a country and world who use such “Freedoms” to lie, cheat, steal, oppress, undermine, corrupt, and extort my people, my country, my religion, my natural resources, my freedoms, my governments, and my way of life.

It would be one thing if America practiced what it preached, but it is Business as usual here in America with Obama slowly but steadily backing away from the “Change we can believe in” and the powers behind congress, (Lobbyists=Banks, Business, Industry, and why does the nation of Israel have on of the largest Lobbying firms in USA? What kind of Nation buys influence in another? isn’t it treason to accept money from another nation to affect policy in this one?) rear their ugly head to continue their predictable road of greed, selfishness, and disdain for the Constitution, the greatest document on human freedom, liberty, and the rights every soul on earth deserves.

Wait I missed something, what’s different from Obama and Bush’s foreign policy?

Are we not pulling out of Iraq at a snail’s pace like under Bush?

Are we not nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Are we not going to support Israel’s eventual war with Iran?

Are we not going to send over Cabinet members to beg the Chinese for money?

Do we still have troops in 136 countries?

Did we just pass a record “defense” budget?

Blathering and speeches means nothing to me, this is status quo business as usual.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive

Great post C.D. Walker. When discussing the Middle East with conservatives I’m constantly faced with the argument: “Muslims hate America because of our freedom and there is nothing we can do to change that”. I know this is totally false so I launch into my history lesson, similar to what is included in your post. More often than not I am faced with outright denial…until a simple Google search. It is high time that America learned from her history. It is baffling to me how we have repeated the same mistakes over and over with our foreign policy.
I think President Obama needs to give America a nationally televised history lesson on our past involvement in the Middle East. He has excelled in explaining his reasoning for the stimulus, healthcare reform, etc. Why has he not explained WHY we need a totally new direction in the Middle East?
Not only would this serve to silence people like W, who try to convince the public that Muslim countries hate America for no reason, but it would also open the eyes of millions of Americans to the true reasons that America is so despised by many Middle Eastern countries. I also think it would go a long way towards assuaging the anger in Muslim nations over the fact that America will not even acknowledge mistakes in the region.
It’s past time for America to learn from our history and craft a nuanced foreign policy with GLOBAL peace, health, and stability at its core.

Posted by Daniel | Report as abusive


Thanks a million for your post here. Now all we need do is to have about a million other Americans begin to realize what an ‘island’ mentality we have developed in our country. ‘USA! Number One!’ ad nauseum. We pretty much control, dictate or co-opt whatever goes on in Canada or Mexico and don’t feel – as the only superpower left – much of a need to engage with other nations and cultures who differ with us on profound issues. We have the military, the GNP equal to all the rest of the world and corporations that live by the credo, ‘Greed is good!’

Posted by David | Report as abusive

Listen to us…

Stop complaining about the US and start doing something about it. One of the most intriguing aspects to me about my fellow Americans is how much they rant and rave about issues they neither provide direction on or leadership within.

We talk of silencing people…how about silencing the attackers for over 7.5 years. We all have a debt of gratitude owed to our fellow Americans protecting our freedom.

Let’s provide leadership America, not rhetoric.

Posted by DA | Report as abusive


You are talking like a child if you believe the Muslims will respond to offers of peace, health and stability.
Their leaders only retain power by building a US “evil straw man” and convincing them through the aid of their religion that the non-Muslim world must be defeated and eliminated. There is no appeasement possible. Their Muslim leaders only understand and respect power and strength.

Posted by AccountingDude | Report as abusive

Excellent article and the comments following it are absolutely spot on. It is true that US foreign policy is hated in the ME, but not American values or people.

Posted by SAS | Report as abusive

You made an excellent point “C.D. Walker”.

Unfortunately empathy is not usual among the human race.
And those who have that amazing capacity usually are not the ones that make the decisions.
If all the decision makers from all the nations (from the US and Europe to Iran, Israel and Palestine) had that quality, although still very difficult, I believe a solution to the problems in the Middle East was possible.

Let’s hope more people read your excellent point and try to put themselves in your shoes.

“Obama’s charisma and outstanding political skills”?
Why not say it? He’s a rockstar…and a rockstar who lies well. Not a shred of substance. Not one little bit of respect for the truth. Hopefully, this empty suit falls on his liberal ass before he has the chance to do too much damage to this country.

Posted by Tim | Report as abusive

It has always been bewildering to me that individuals are so prone to be upset about transactions with others only after the fact. Could this be due in no small part to the human emotion of jealousy we are so convenient to exhibit once we see that another has the ability to “turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.”
Unfortunate for some, fortunate financially for others, there will always be those with vision to see a bountiful garden where others only see rocks too big to break. We need to face it and move on that the value we place on an item is relative to our immediate needs at the time. If all of us were blessed with vision then of course the Native Americans would have never sold Manhattan for $24, but they did not place value on land the way the settlers did. Who are we, with our revisionist history, to say that they did not feel as if the settlers were the “suckers” in that deal.
My daddy used to say “Son, as long as there is no fraud involved then a deal is a deal and no crying after.” What he meant is that if someone buys your land and pays you a fair market price then don’t complain if they then decide to dig a well and find oil. It’s a sign of weakness when we start with the recriminations after the fact. Remember we really are supposed to learn from our mistakes; “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”

Posted by L. Perez Jr. | Report as abusive

You guys appear to be big Fox News followers as you are so “Fair and Balanced”. Thank you for letting us know that the Arab world is without sin. Your history lesson would benefit from sharing all sides. Can you not think of one sin that the Middle East has performed or is all the fault simply US based?

Posted by TL | Report as abusive

To often liberals like yourself claim falsely that America plays lip service to democracy and supports dictators or authoritarian leaders who are friendly to the US. The fact is that few of these dictators are friendly to the US and we attempt to buy influence with money and support. What people like Bernd Debusmann fail to acknowledge is that many of the leaders we supported were the lesser of two evils as was the case with Nicaragua and Iran. The factions that stepped in were the Sandinistians in Nicaragua and the Aytollah Komeni in Iran. Both of which were hands down more brutal and repressive than either of the people they replaced. The fact is that many times we have no white hat to support and so we must choose between the lesser of evils and attmept to influence that person over time with dollars and persuasion. The alternative is to walk away and let the chips fall where they may. The reality of letting the chips fall where they may is there is usually already another influence in the area for the other evil. In Nicaragua the Cubans and the Russians supported the Sandinistans. They took over. Shut down the press and murdered their enemies. They stopped all elections. In Iran, the same. With our help, the Contras restored the press and free elections. So the glassy eyed liberal, who for the most part agrees with the tyranny applied by a socialist government, we were wrong to support the old Nicaraugian government and we were wrong to support the Contras. It was our fault the Sandinistans murdered people and stole their money. It was our fault that a theocracy took over Iran and suppressed the rights of all the people. But the liberals have no problem with the foreign governments who supported the opposition to the US interests in that area. So really, what Bernd Debusmann supports is anyone who opposes the US. He doesn’t support democracy, he supports a thug in charge who doesn’t hold elections as long as the thug opposes us. He is anti-American. He has a believe that we are an unjust and undemocratic government. What he doesn’t oppose is people who support brutal regimes without elections who oppose us.

It’s so easy to recognize a confused, so called “conservative” by the hate-driven retoric and profane, personally insulting comments. I left the Soviet Union because of the fear-mongering, hate-filled ideology that eventually lead to that state’s self-distruction. I certainly would not want to see it happen in the U.S., but it will, if hateful and arrogant ideology of the current and past GOP supporters is allowed to proliferate. We chose Obama to change the course but, he may not be able to advance his honorable agenda because the haters have not been outed and brought to justice. We, as a country, will not be able to move on from our shameful recent past of the Bush years if we keep sweeping this history under the rug, until we fully reflect and redress all they have done, bringing justice and fact-based, truthful policies back into our government. Prosecute torturers, liers who concocted the war argument, war profeteers and financial manipulators – that’s the change I and millions of people all over the world believe in.

Posted by Alex | Report as abusive

CD: Your general thesis is correct, but you’re making a dangerous error. The US and britain did not “steal” Arab land to create Israel; the land was controlled by Turkey (not an Arab state) before WWI, and was captured by Britain. This was not some elaborate part of a british plot; in fact, British diplomats tried thier hardest to keep Turkey from joining the central powers.

Granted, Britain unjustifiably procrastinated in fufilling thier promise to create Arab states. Nonetheless, the issue was eventually turned over to the UN which overwhelming voted to establish two Palestinian states– Palestine and Jordan– as well as one Jewish state in the region. (Opponents of Israel often point out that the Jews recieved more land per capita; this is true but much of that land was the worthless Negev dessert.) Israel was willing to co-exist; its neighbors were not, but Israel won every war and the rest is history.

Am I nitpicking on one detail? No. If you condemn every US action in the middle-east, you’re being as bad as the people who buy the ignorant “they hate us because of freedom” line. It is true that the US has, and continues to, hypocritcally sponsor un-democratic leaders. But it is also true that corrupt and incomepetent middle eastern leaders use us and even more so Israel as a straw-man, and that Israel is the only stable democracy in the region not built by the US military, with the arguable exception of turkey.

It is bad to continue the pattern of hypocracy, but just as bad to abandon all our ligitimate causes. The myths and facts of American misconduct in the Middle East that caused 9/11 are fanned both by the US’s hypocritical actions and by liberal apologists who make the US’s ligitimate actions seem hypocritical in the eyes of the world as well.

Posted by ZT | Report as abusive

You are just wrong about how Arabs feel about Americans. I own an environmental consulting firm with an office in the north of UAE. I have traveled the Middle East extensively, and find that our media is out of touch with how most Arabs, at least those in the business world feel about Americans. Arabs are the one group of people that I have done business with that can sift out politics from business. They appreciate our way of business and our way of life. They hate that we, as a country, support Israel, but in business dealings they can mostly sift that out too. Your words are eloquent, but your research has significantly misguided you,

Posted by Nick Patz | Report as abusive

In response to CD I can only say that wars have consequences. When you lose you suffer the consequences. When you win hasn’t it been said “Tthat to the victor go the spoils.” Either way, you must face facts. In 1948, the entire world created the State of Israel not the United States. The United States has become their biggest ally and rightfully so. To imply that you can turn back time and change things is just unrealistic. Israel will remain a vibrant free State and you are just going to have to get used to it. As for America, when have you ever witnessed a country act contrary to its own self interest? OK, when the Communists finally stopped killing the people trying to leave East Germany I will give you that one. Let Freedom Ring.

Posted by Lyle Hartog | Report as abusive

Peace works on both sides – right now Christians are being persecuted and killed by Muslims in Iraq and other countries. Muslims are not permitted to convert to any other religion – there is no religious freedom in their countries.

It’s hard to be friends with someone who just wants to convert you or kill you.

http://worldblog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2 009/05/09/1927475.aspx

http://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1CHMG _enUS300US305&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8&q =christians+under+attack+in+muslim+count ries

Posted by ST | Report as abusive

I dont know if anyone has noticed this but, for every presidency there is a certain atmosphere that goes with that president. Its a reflection on what that president is doing as well as on the media. During all the dumb mistakes in Bush’s presidency there was still that underlying feeling of nurturing. In Obama’s, amid all the empty promises that he is incapable of fulfilling, there is a feeling of hollowness. He doesn’t work to improve this country or the world. Or even to share our freedom and keep smaller countries above the water line as Bush did (or attempted). Instead he made promises. And beneath those promises there is not a slow growing concern for our (or others) welfare. Nor is there a love goal for this country. Instead there is a concern for his image, and in his rush to preserve it he is undoing all past work, getting tangled up in it and ultimately harming the American people. At the very least he needs to focus on one thing at a time, lose the empty promises and charades, and warn us the upcoming flood of dangers. Not pretend like its not there. I’m sorry I was off topic but I needed somewhere too say it. And please don’t brand me a liberal or conservative. I’m a member of no party.

Posted by Estevan | Report as abusive

Here is an interesting fact. In George Washington’s farewell speech he warned the American people of mounting national debt, the growing power of political parties, and entangling foreign alliances. Obama is doing all three

Posted by jacob | Report as abusive

Debusmann needs to pull his head out of the sand. Islamic fundamentalists are dead-set against:
1. Women’s rights
2. Any religion other than Islam
3. Free market capitalism

You need only examine Islam’s history to know this is true. It isn’t us – it’s THEM.

Obama’s policies will make us less safe. Closing Gitmo for example, is a terrible idea. Do we REALLY wish to further the radicalization of violent felons in our prison system? It’ll happen if we stock our prisons with terrorists from Gitmo.

Lastly, visit this link for an example of how Bush’s policies have kept us safe since 2001:
http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2009/05/ 21/security-experts-say-patriot-act-like ly-helped-thwart-nyc-terror-plot/