HIS HAGIOGRAPHERS WILL ALWAYS think otherwise, but what President Barack Obama said about America's relationship with the Islamic world during his interview with al-Arabiya--namely, that "Americans are not your enemy"--only restated what American presidents have been saying in word and deed for almost 20 years now.
Obama's immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, was often caricatured, especially in the Islamic world, as a crusading cowboy and enemy of Islam. Perception is important in this media-saturated age, to be sure, but facts are stubborn things.
It pays to recall that it was Bush who declared in 2003, "It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world--or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim--is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life."
Like his predecessor, Bush called for the creation of a Palestinian state. Bush even laid out a time-frame to achieve it, but the Hamas coup against the Palestinian Authority and the resulting civil war in Gaza derailed those plans.
Moreover, it was during the controversial and consequential Bush years that the U.S. military liberated Afghanistan from the medieval Taliban and Iraq from Saddam Hussein's torture chambers. America continues to stand with these troubled lands as they convalesce. As Fouad Ajami writes in his poignant history of the U.S. intervention in Iraq, The Foreigner's Gift, "We know that the Iraqis did not walk alone" in their hobbled march from tyranny to freedom.
With the help of the U.S. armed forces, Iraq's schools--in peacetime used as places of Baathist indoctrination, and in wartime as anti-aircraft sites--are being rebuilt. All told, some 3,400 schools have been rehabilitated since 2003, and more than 55,000 teachers have been trained. U.S. forces are helping build 142 new primary healthcare centers, which will serve 6.5 million Iraqis. Add to this water treatment stations, power grids, roads and the government itself--all are being rebuilt with the help of American soldiers and Marines. And we must not forget that Iraq's public infrastructure was wrecked before America's war of regime change. As Chris Hitchens has observed, Iraq was not just a failed state, but "a failed society."
Backed by the muscle of the U.S. military, American relief agencies have built or renovated 640 health clinics, 600 schools, and 4,000 miles of roads to connect the fragmented country of Afghanistan. Some five million Afghan children are now in school--and about 1.8 million of them are girls. All the while, America's ambidextrous troops continue to fight those who would take Afghanistan backwards to a time of public torture, fanaticism and terror.
On top of all their efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops were the first responders to recent disasters of biblical proportion in the Muslim world. For instance, after the 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of Muslim Indonesia, the U.S. military deployed warships, helicopters, transport planes, and almost 20,000 troops to lead the greatest humanitarian relief effort since the Berlin Airlift.
America's record in the Islamic world was just as strong during the Clinton administration, which saw U.S. troops fight and die for Muslim Somalia, bleed with Muslims in Tanzania, defend Muslims in Bosnia, liberate Muslim Kosovo and protect Muslim Kuwait and Saudi Arabia--the very heart of Islam--from Saddam Hussein's henchmen.
That brings us to the presidency of George H.W. Bush. After a U.S.-led coalition ejected Iraq's army from Kuwait, U.S. troops rescued millions of Iraqi Kurds from starvation and brutalization at Saddam's hands. U.S. forces then stayed in Saudi Arabia to protect the kingdom from Saddam's vengeance.
Of course, even America's helping hand was considered an affront. Osama bin Laden's pre-9/11 fatwas against America condemned the "occupation of the land of the two Holy Places" and vowed a global guerilla war "to expel the occupying enemy." One of the early fronts of bin Laden's war was Mogadishu, where his men trained those who killed American personnel during the mercy mission in 1992-94.
It would be wrong to conclude that the only form of American engagement in the Islamic world is military might. Congress appropriated $857 million to help victims of the 2004 tsunami; the American people donated another $1.6 billion in private monies. Washington pours more than $16 billion in foreign-aid grants annually into Muslim nations (out of some $31.7 billion in 2007). U.S. total trade with Indonesia accounts for more than $18 billion, with Iraq more than $12 billion, with Turkey more than $11 billion, with Egypt more than $7.6 billion, with Pakistan $5.5 billion, and the list goes on and on.
To be sure, America's intervention in the Islamic world is imperfect and sometimes shaped by self-interest, but it is usually enlightened self-interest and it is often unselfish: Which American interests were served by sending 30,000 troops halfway around the world to feed Mogadishu, or by waging a 78-day war for tiny Kosovo, or by dispatching a naval armada to Sumatra?
If the record of the past 18 years--in Saudi Arabia and Somalia, Kuwait and Kosovo and Kurdistan, Iraq and Indonesia--hasn't convinced moderate Muslims that the U.S. is on their side, it seems unlikely that Barack Obama's words will do any better.