Obama’s Book Ruminates On The Muslim World, Pakistan And India
Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land, deals with his first term in the White House. He tells us that even before assuming the presidency in January 2009, he had wanted to reach out to the Muslim World. He correctly reasoned that America’s post 9/11 wars had created widespread distrust of America among Muslims and that most of them believed that Americans had a negative view of Islam.
Obama wanted to speak to the Muslim world to build trust. He did that at Cairo University in June. During his drive from the airport to the presidential palace, he noticed that Cairo’s “famously chaotic streets were empty for miles,” the hallmark of an authoritarian state. At the university, he began his speech with “Assalamu-e-elekum” and was greeted with a loud applause. He called for a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims”, declaring, “This cycle of suspicion and discord must end”. At the end, he got a standing ovation. In the memoir, he notes that he didn’t think a speech would change anything unless it was followed-up by action.
He was right on the mark. I happened to be in Cairo just three months later. I asked Egyptians about Obama’s speech. The response I got from a shopkeeper was typical. Speaking in broken English, he dismissed it entirely, saying simply, “Obama Zero.” When I asked why, he said, “Obama is all talk and no action,” on which I said, give him a year or two. He shrugged his shoulders. The reality is that (very) little could be changed in America’s foreign policy towards the Muslim World on Obama’s watch.
Prior to visiting Cairo, Obama visited King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh, he was struck by the segregation of men and women and the total suppression of political dissent. This Muslim civilization was very different from the one he had observed as a child growing up in Indonesia. It seemed that the royal family had struck a deal with the clerics to avoid being overthrown like the Shah in Iran. Obama wondered how long that deal would last. When he asked the king what it was like to live with twelve wives, his Majesty responded: “Very badly. It’s more complicated than Middle East politics.” Obama did not ask the king why he had inflicted this wound on himself.
Obama is critical of Islamic fundamentalism and says that there is no excuse for killing innocent men and women in the name of God. He says he came into office determined to eliminate the world’s most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. The entire closing chapter of the book is devoted to that mission. Perhaps, Obama regards that as the crowning achievement of his first term.
Informed by US intelligence that Osama was living in a large house in Abbottabad, just a few miles from the Pakistani military academy, Obama was skeptical. Eventually, he accepted the finding.
Three options were presented to the US Commander-in-Chief: Bomb the entire building. That would kill everyone in it; what if Osama did not live there? Plus there would be no proof that Osama was killed. The second option was to kill the man who was seen “pacing” the grounds everyday. He matched the features of Osama. That would avoid killing everyone in the house but there would be no way to verify that he was Osama. The third option was to send in the Navy Seals. He went with the third.
Then he narrates the “official version” featured in the film, Zero Dark Thirty. The biggest risk was that the Navy Seals would be intercepted by the Pakistani military. That did not come to pass. The second biggest risk was that the Pakistani government would be upset. He managed to placate the “beleaguered” President Zardari. The third risk was that the raid would upset the people of Pakistan. That, indeed, came to pass and boosted anti-Americanism.
Obama made a decision not to show pictures of the body, fearing it would amount to the desecration of a hero. Unfortunately, the absence of pictures cut into the credibility of the official version. This was compounded by the decision to bury the body at sea.
Obama does not explain why the US helicopters were not intercepted by the PAF or why the Pakistani army failed to confront the Seals. Perhaps, these are state secrets. But his failure to address them lends credence to the story that a retired Pakistani army officer gave the US the details about Osama’s presence, collected a massive reward, and was relocated to the US with a new identity. During his visit to Washington, Prime Minister Imran Khan said that Pakistani intelligence helped the US in carrying out the mission. This was an about-face on the earlier position espoused by General Musharraf, which was that Pakistani military was not complicit, just incompetent.
Obama thought that by taking out Osama, Al-Qaeda would be dealt a body blow. It yielded questionable benefits, since Al-Qaeda had already been marginalized by ISIS, which was created in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq. ISIS killed Muslims in greater numbers than the US invaders and much more brutally. The US failed to eliminate the Taliban in Afghanistan. In the ultimate irony, it seems that the Taliban will soon return to power in Kabul with America’s blessing.
Obama says India always had a special place in his imagination. He had read ancient Hindu epics while growing up in Indonesia and was an avid reader of Gandhi’s writings. Thus, he was pleased to visit India and tour the places where Gandhi had lived.
He found that millions lived in squalor while the titans of industry lived a life that “the Rajas and the Mughals” would have envied. India’s politics revolved around “religion, clan and caste” and “expressing hostility toward Pakistan was still the quickest route to national unity.” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed his disappointment at Pakistan’s failure to work with India to track down the perpetrators of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Singh said that anti-Muslim sentiment and a divisive nationalism touted by the BJP were on the rise. Obama did not visit Pakistan and the book is silent on the topic.
Obama’s prose flows effortlessly but is marred with the occasional rambling sentence. The book has a 38-page index but no footnotes or references. First names are mentioned, sometimes even nicknames, without context. It can be difficult to figure out who is being referenced. Dates are scarcely mentioned. Even then, scholars will cite this incredible memoir for years to come.
Ahmad Faruqui is a defense analyst and economist. He has taught at the universities of Karachi, California at Davis, and San Jose State. Faruqui is the author of “Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan” (Ashgate, 2003). Contact him via Twitter @AhmadFaruqui