24 Dec 2020

Review and Summary of Obama’s “A Promised Land”

Author: Barak Obama

 Reviewed by: Prof. Fawazi Ghazali

Barack Hussein Obama is an American politician and attorney who was born on August 4th, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii, US. He got a university degree in law from Harvard Law School in 1991 and was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States from 2009 and served two terms. As a Democrat from Illinois, Obama took office following a decisive victory over Republican nominee John McCain in the 2008 Presidential elections. During his eight-year presidency, Obama was the first African American president, the first multiracial president, the first non-white president of the US, and the first president to have been born in Hawaii. He was succeeded by the Republican Donald Trump in 2017.

As the first of a two-volume series, Obama’s “A Promised Land” is a memoir of his presidential period in the White House and an honest accounting of his experience during his stint as US president. The focus of the “Promised Land” is more political than personal, but when Obama wrote about his family, it was with a beauty bordering on nostalgia. The book was released on November 17, 2020, soon after the national elections, and the audiobook edition was read by Obama himself. The New York Times described the book as being “virtually guaranteed” to be the year’s top seller. Alongside the English original, the “Promised Land” will be translated into 24 more languages.

The “Promised Land” started with a description of Obama’s early life, followed by coverage of his initial political campaigns. The book ends with a meeting in Kentucky in which Obama discusses the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama Bin Laden with his team. A key part of Obama’s “Promised Land” is related to his description of the role of H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed in keeping stability in the Middle East and his wisdom in handling the many issues that followed the Arab Spring in 2011. The book is documentation of the US’s vision toward many intricate occurrences in the Middle East region and the whole world at large.

  • Obama and Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed

In the “Promised Land”, Obama described H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ), who is the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, as being the savviest leader in the Gulf whose coalition with Saudi Arabia contributed to ensuring stability in the Gulf and in resolving many regional issues. After Obama called Hosni Mubarak to step down following the people’s revolution in Egypt against him in 2011, Obama said that MBZ (as referred to by Obama) believed that the US statements on Egypt were watched closely in the Gulf with increasing sense of alarm. MBZ also warned Obama of what the situation would turn into if the protesters in Bahrain called for King Hamad to step down; should the US administration put out that same kind of statement as they had on Egypt.

In response to the concern of MBZ about the regime in Egypt, Obama told him that he hoped to work with him and other leaders in the Gulf to avoid having to choose between the Muslim Brotherhood and potentially violent clashes between governments and their people. Obama asserted that MBZ’s voice was calm and resolute and that MBZ did not ask for help from the US but rather told Obama that the US public message did not affect Mubarak solely, but it affected the whole region. Obama also reported that MBZ told him that he was critical of Obama’s statement in that if Egypt collapsed and the Muslim Brotherhood would gain power, there might likely be other Arab leaders who would face similar circumstances. For MBZ, as relayed to Obama, such statements made by the latter showed that the US was not a partner they could rely on in the long run.

Obama also said that MBZ was right in his prediction that such US statements that Mubarak should step down would be taken seriously by protesters in Bahrain where huge, mostly Shiite demonstrations against the government of King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa were taking place in the capital city of Manama. The protests led King Hamad to take the unprecedented step of inviting armed divisions of the Saudi and Emirati armies to help control the demonstrations of Manama. Obama told MBZ that Bahrain is a longtime US ally that hosted the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and that King Hamad and his ministers should at least do something to address the protesters’ demands and to rein in the police violence.

Obama’s narrative regarding MBZ firstly reflects the strategic role that the UAE could play in keeping stability and peace in the Gulf region and secondly it expresses Obama’s acknowledgement of MBZ’s wisdom, bravery, and succinct awareness of the political circumstances in the region.

  • Obama and King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz (KSA)

During Obama’s first visit to Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in June 2009, he said that he was impressed by the lavish airport welcoming ceremony, yet he was struck by the complete absence of women and children on the tarmac or in the terminals. He felt how oppressive and sad such a segregated place had to be, as if suddenly entering a world where all the colors had been muted.

Obama described King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud as being the most powerful leader in the Arab World, and that his father king Abdul Aziz – the nation’s first monarch, was deeply wedded in the teachings of the eighteenth-century cleric Mohammed Bin Abdul Wahab whose followers claimed to practice an authentic version of Islam. Those followers viewed Shiite and Sufi Islam as heretical and supported the public segregation of the sexes, avoidance of contact with non-Muslims, and the rejection of secular art and other pastimes that might distract them from their faith. Obama also said that King Abdul Aziz Al Saud made use of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World war I to consolidate his control over the rival Arab tribes and founded modern Saudi Arabia in accordance with these Wahhabist principles.

Obama, in addition, said that the discovery of oil fields and the untold wealth that came from it forced king Abdul Aziz to form two kinds of strategic relationships. King Abdul Aziz first needed Western technology and expertise to fully exploit the kingdom’s newfound treasure and hence he formed an alliance with the US to obtain modern weapons and secure the Saudi oil fields against rival states. After the Iranian revolution in the seventies of the last century, Obama said that the Saudi monarchy struck a bargain with clerics of Wahhabism in which the House of Saud had absolute control over the nation’s economy and government in return for granting the Wahhabist clerics authority over social activities, education, mosques and enforcing punishment on those who violated religious beliefs. Obama also expressed his belief that the fundamentalism and absolutism of Wahhabism was incompatible with modernity and that it served as a petri dish for the radicalization of many young Muslims like Osama Bin Laden who, along with four others, planned and carried out the September 11th attacks.

Obama also said that King Abdullah told him about the 12 wives he married and that keeping up with them was more complicated than the Middle East politics. However, Obama noticed that King Abdullah was guarded and clearly wary of potential controversy when Obama asked him about the possibility of KSA and other Arab states encouraging Palestinians to start another round of peace talks with Israel. King Abdullah also did not welcome discussing with Obama, the possible transfer of some of the Guantanamo prisoners to Saudi rehabilitation centers. Obama seemed surprised of the extremely precious gifts King Abdullah offered him and his delegation.

  • Obama and Hosni Mubarak

During his visit to Cairo in 2009 and meeting with Hosni Mubarak, the President of Egypt for 30 years from 1981 to 2011, Obama said that he was left with an impression that the regime in Egypt and all other aging autocratic regimes were often closed off in their palaces and that their interaction with people were mediated by the hard-faced, obsequious functionaries that surrounded him. Accordingly, their actions were governed by no broader purpose beyond maintaining the tangled web of patronage and business interests that kept them in power. Obama described his speech at the University of Cairo as an opportunity to address issues like democracy, human and women rights, religious tolerance, and the need for a true and lasting peace between Israel and an autonomous Palestinian state.

Obama said that the successive American administrations overlooked the growing corruption and poor record regarding human rights during the Mubarak era, after Cairo became an ally of Washington following the signing of the peace agreement with Israel. He also outlined that Mubarak did not concern himself with making reforms in his country’s stagnant economy, leaving an entire generation of Egyptians unable to find work. That was because of the generous financial aid Mubarak was used to receiving not only from the US, but also from Saudi Arabia and the rest of the oil-rich Gulf countries.

Obama said that he was not a big fan of Mubarak, but concluded that a one-off statement criticizing a law that had been in place for almost thirty years would not be all that useful. He described the US strategy as an “ocean liner” rather than a “speedboat” in that if he wanted to change his approach to the region, he would have to calibrate the strategy to give allies in the region time to adjust. Obama also outlined that many of his veteran diplomats and experts were predictably skeptical of the need for any change to U.S. policy, arguing that as unsavory as some of their Arab allies might be, the status quo served America’s core interests, and that genuine reform was by no means certain if more populist governments took their place.

Obama also surmised that in August 2010 he instructed the State Department, Pentagon, CIA, and other government agencies to examine ways the United States could encourage meaningful political and economic reforms in the region to nudge those nations closer to the principles of open government, so that they might avoid the destabilizing uprisings, violence, chaos, and unpredictable outcomes that so often accompanied sudden change. By mid-December, Obama said that the strategy was just about ready for his approval.

Obama openly said that many leaders in the region including King Abdullah, MBZ, Netanyahu, and others were enquiring why the US was not supporting Mubarak more forcefully. Netanyahu told Obama that Iran might swiftly try to seize the moment; whereas King Abdullah told Obama that four factions were behind the protests in Egypt namely the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, and Hamas.

  • Obama, Netanyahu, and Mahmoud Abbas

Obama described Benjamin Netanyahu as being built like a linebacker, with a square jaw, broad features, and a gray combover. He was smart, canny, tough, and a gifted communicator who was the successor of a deeply-rooted Zionist movement in which his father was a leader and writer about the persecution of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. Obama said that Netanyahu’s view of himself as the chief defender of the Jewish people against calamity allowed him to justify almost anything that would keep him in power, and that his familiarity with American politics and media gave him confidence that he could resist whatever pressure a Democratic administration might try to apply.

Obama said that Netanyahu also inherited his father’s unabashed hostility toward Arabs and that his personality would not allow him any compromise or agreement with Arabs. Netanyahu believed that Israel was surrounded by a hostile neighborhood and so he had to be tough. For Obama, this attitude represented Netanyahu as the most hawkish member of AIPAC. Apart from this, Obama said that Netanyahu could be charming or at least solicitous when it served his purposes. He was most interested in talking about Iran, which is commonly viewed as Israel’s largest security threat.

As said by Obama, Netanyahu was decidedly noncommittal to talk about the possibility of restarting peace talks with the Palestinians. Obama believed that the reluctance of Netanyahu to enter into peace talks was born of Israel’s growing strength; whereas the reluctance of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to enter into peace talks was born of political weakness. Obama viewed Abbas as an aged President, white-haired and mustached, mild-mannered and deliberate in his movements who used to be in the shadow of the more charismatic chairman, Yasser Arafat. Obama believed that Abbas’ innate caution and willingness to cooperate with the Israel security apparatus had damaged his reputation with his own people particularly after he lost control over the Gaza Strip to Hamas in the 2006 legislative elections, viewing peace talks with Israel as a risk not worth taking.

In his memoirs, Obama referred to the pressures he was exposed to from the lobbies supporting the Israeli occupation particularly on his proposed settlement freeze when he was publicly accused of weakening the US-Israeli alliance. He was also accused by reporters, leaders of the American Jewish organizations, and members of the congress of picking on Israel and focusing on settlements when it was well established that Palestinian violence was the main impediment to peace. These pressures forced Obama to hurry and invite leaders of the American Jewish organizations and members of the congress to the White House where he assured them of his ironclad commitment to Israel’s security and the US-Israel relationship.

  • Obama & Erdogan

Obama readily pictured Erdogan as a local power broker on the Chicago City Council, given the deals he had been making with the West and Middle Eastern states. Obama also noticed that when Erdogan, and his Justice and Development Party had swept into power in 2002–2003, touting populist and often overtly Islamic appeals, it had unsettled Turkey’s secular, military-dominated political elite. Erdogan’s vocal sympathy for both the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in their fight for an independent Palestinian state had also made Washington and Tel Aviv nervous. Obama also stated that some of his advisors suggested that Erdogan might offer a model of moderate, modern, and pluralistic political Islam and an alternative to the autocracies, theocracies, and extremist movements that characterized the region.

Obama also outlined that there had been mutual self-interested working relationship between him and Erdogan, since Turkey needed the US support in its EU bid as well as military and intelligence assistance in fighting Kurdish separatists who had been emboldened by the fall of Saddam Hussein. The US, meanwhile, needed Turkey’s cooperation to combat terrorism and stabilize Iraq. Obama found Erdogan as cordial and generally responsive to his requests. Whenever Obama listened to him speak, Erdogan’s tall frame slightly stooped, his voice a forceful staccato that rose an octave in response to various grievances or perceived slights, he got the strong impression that Erdogan’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law might only last as long as it preserved his own power. Obama also reported that Erdogan was deeply touchy talking about the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks, but he appreciated Erdogan’s logistic support of the US’s withdrawal from Iraq.

  • Obama, Iraq, & Iran

Obama’s speech about Iran was not disconnected from the situation in Iraq following the US invasion of it and which – as expressed by Obama- strengthened Iran’s strategic position in the Gulf region. Obama described Nouri Al-Maliki, the former Prime Minister of Iraq, as being a dour figure, vaguely Nixonian with his long face, having a heavy five-o’clock shadow, and indirect gaze, whose selection to be the Prime Minister of Iraq made him an anathema to Saudi Arabia and other US allies in the Gulf region. However, Obama viewed Al-Maliki’s duty as both difficult and dangerous because he had to balance the demands of the domestic Shiite powers who are supporting and protecting him and the Sunni population that had dominated the country under Saddam Hussein. He also had to manage countervailing pressures from his US benefactors and Iranian ally.

Unlike Russia and China, Obama said that Iran posed the least serious challenge to America’s long-term interests but won the prize for “Most Actively Hostile” by calling America the “Great Satan”. Obama also believed that Iran under the young monarch, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, adopted the secular principles of the West and used its growing wealth to modernize the economy and education system, and mingled easily with Western businesspeople and European royalties. This had been before the Iranian revolution in 1979 when Khomeini, a white bearded cleric with the smoldering eyes of the prophet, stepped off a plane in triumphant return from exile before a sea of adoring supporters.

Obama commented on the worry of the Gulf states in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution and how Khomeini’s call to overthrow Sunni Arab monarchies turned Iran and the House of Saud into bitter enemies and sharpened sectarian conflict across the Middle East. During the bloody eight-year war between Iraq and Iran, Obama said that the Gulf States provided Saddam Hussein with financing backing while the Soviets supplied Khomeini’s military with arms, including chemical weapons. This accelerated Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism as a way to offset its enemies’ military advantages through its armed proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Meanwhile, Obama commented on how the US under the administration of Ronald Reagan cynically tried to have it both ways by publicly backing Iraq while secretly selling arms to Iran (Iran Contra-Affair).

Obama confessed that the Nuclear Program of Iran had been a grade A headache for his administration particularly after discovering that Iran was accelerating its nuclear power and was not abiding with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed by it in 1970. This treaty offered Iran the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful means. However, the same centrifuge technology was used by Iranians to spin and enrich the Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU) that fueled nuclear power plants, and that the LEU could be modified to produce weapons-grade, Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU).

The accelerated Iranian nuclear program put more pressure on the US administration because the Saudis would likely react by pursuing their own rival “Sunni Nuclear Bomb” triggering a nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile region. On the other hand, Israel, which has undeclared nuclear weapons, was allegedly drawing up plans for a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Obama eventually concluded that preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon ideally should be done through diplomacy either through direct outreach with Iranians or through mobilizing the international community to apply tough, multilateral economic sanctions that might force Iran to the negotiating table. The UN Security Council also formed a group called the P5+1 representing the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany to meet with Iranian officials and push them back into Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty compliance.

  • Obama & Osama Bin Laden

In 2003, Obama stated that Al-Qaeda had been the most serious and extremist movement of the current century and that bringing Osama Bin Laden to justice should be given priority over the war in Iraq. He also mentioned that during his presidential race in which he pledged to go after Bin Laden inside Pakistan if the government there was unable or unwilling to take him out. Immediately after Obama’s victory of the US elections in 2009, he brought a handful of advisors and informed them that he wanted to make the hunt for Bin Laden a top priority. Obama’s interest of bringing Bin Laden to justice was because his continued freedom was a source of pain for the families who had been lost in the 9/11 attacks. It was also because Bin Laden remained Al-Qaeda’s most effective recruiter, radicalizing disaffected young men around the world. Obama also wanted to reorient America’s counterterrorism strategy by focusing on the terrorists who planned and carried out 9/11 instead of focusing on the open-ended “War on Terrorism” that was – as believed by Obama – a strategic trap that had elevated Al-Qaeda’s prestige.

Obama said that he could not believe what he heard from the CIA officials that they had a potential lead on Bin Laden through a man known as Abu Ahmed Al-Kuwaiti, whom they believed served as Al-Qaeda courier and had known ties to Bin Laden. By tracking his phone and daily movements, they were led to a large compound in an affluent neighborhood on the outskirts of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, thirty-five miles north of Islamabad. The CIA named Bin Laden as the “Pacer” and it kept watching the compound he was living in until they had decided on what the raid on the compound would look like. Obama was not interested in involving the Pakistanis in the proposed raids on Abbottabad lest this news could be taken by Pakistani intelligence members and be sent to Taliban or Al-Qaeda and hence could end up tripping off their target.

Obama officially gave the go-ahead for the Abbottabad mission on Friday, April 29th, emphasizing that McRaven had full operational control and that it would be up to him to determine the exact timing of the raid. In the Situation Room of the White House, Obama was watching the military operation of getting Bin Laden unfold in real time, with ghostly images moving across the screen. Obama could not believe it when his assistants simultaneously uttered the words they had been waiting to hear after months of planning and years of intelligence gathering:

“Geronimo ID’d…Geronimo EKIA.” Enemy killed in action.

“Geronimo” was the code name of Bin Laden for the purposes of the secrecy of the mission. Obama told his team that he had set plans for notifying Pakistan and other countries. He also instructed his team that preparations had been made for a traditional Islamic burial of Bin Laden to take place at sea, avoiding the creation of a pilgrimage site for jihadists.

  • Obama & World Leaders

David Cameron – Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Obama said that David Cameron had a youthful appearance and a studied informality and possessed an impressive command of the issues, a talent with language, and the easy confidence of someone who had never been pressed too hard by life. Obama said that he personally liked Cameron who had proved to be a willing partner on a host of international issues, from climate change (he believed in the science) to human rights (he supported marriage equality) to aid for developing countries (throughout his tenure, he had managed to allocate 1.5 percent of the U.K.’s budget to foreign aid, a significantly higher percentage than he could ever convince the U.S. Congress to approve).

Vladimir Putin – the President of Russia

Obama described the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, as physically being unremarkably short and compact with a wrestler’s build and thin, sandy hair, a prominent nose, and pale, watchful eyes. Obama also noticed Putin’s casualness to his movements, a practiced disinterest in his voice that indicated someone accustomed to being surrounded by subordinates and supplicants; someone who had grown used to power. Obama also said that Putin reminded him of the political barons he met early in his career in Chicago. He added that Putin was like a county governor, but that he has nuclear weapons and a veto power in the United Nations Security Council. Putin also reminded Obama of the kind of men who ran Chicago. They were tough personalities with insensitive shrewdness. They knew what they knew and had not shied away from their narrow experiences. They also considered favoritism, bribery, extortion, fraud and sporadic violence as legitimate tools of commerce.

Nicolas Sarkozy – the President of France

As described by Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, was all emotional outbursts and overblown rhetoric, with dark, expressive, vaguely Mediterranean features and a small stature. He looked like a figure out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting. Despite coming from a wealthy family, he readily admitted that his ambitions were fueled in part by a lifelong sense of being an outsider. Obama also added that Sarkozy, like Merkel, had made his name as a leader of the center right, winning the presidency on a platform of laissez-faire economics, looser labor regulations, lowering taxes, and a less pervasive welfare state. Unlike Merkel, Sarkozy lurched all over the map when it came to policy, often driven by headlines or political expedience, and he was already vocally denouncing the excesses of global capitalism. What Sarkozy lacked in ideological consistency, he made up for in boldness, charm, and manic energy. Indeed, conversations with Sarkozy were by turns amusing and exasperating, his hands in perpetual motion, his chest thrust out like a bantam cock, his personal translator always beside him to frantically mirror his every gesture and intonation as the conversation swooped from flattery to bluster to genuine insight, never straying far from his primary, barely disguised interest, which was to be at the center of the action and taking credit for whatever it was that might be worth taking credit for.

Angela Merkel – the Chancellor of Germany

Obama said that Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, was the daughter of a Lutheran pastor who had grown up in Communist East Germany, keeping her head down and earning a PhD in quantum chemistry. Only after the Iron Curtain fell did she enter politics, methodically moving up the ranks of the center-right Christian Democratic Union party with a combination of organizational skill, strategic acumen, and unwavering patience. Merkel’s eyes were big and bright blue and could be touched by turns with frustration, amusement, or hints of sorrow. Otherwise, her stolid appearance reflected her no-nonsense, analytical sensibility. She was famously suspicious of emotional outbursts or overblown rhetoric, and her team would later confess that she had been initially skeptical of Obama precisely because of his oratorical skills. Obama said that he took no offense, figuring that in a German leader, an aversion to possible demagoguery was probably a healthy thing.

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