Obama’s Middle East Speech: Repackaging or Remaking US policy in the region?

May 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Today President Obama gave a speech detailing his administration’s response to the Arab Spring, his support for fledgling democracies in the region, his rationale for intervening in Libya and not Bahrain, Yemen or Syria and a way forward for assisting democratic development in Tunisia and Egypt and for Arab-Israeli peace. Kori Schake writes for Foreign Policy that “he (Obama) was long on pedantry and short of concrete proposals,” and that “His national security team should have provided him a much better developed program of policies in advance of a major speech.” Schake is correct to a certain extent. When Obama discussed the government suppression of protesters in Syria, Iran and Bahrain,  he was quick to criticize the repressive regimes in those countries but stopped short of offering any promise of direct support for the democratic movements there. Despite this, Obama’s speech was a success in the sense that it reaffirmed the cosmopolitan principles he advanced in his Cairo speech, that he offered significant aid to the Middle East and that he promised a slight improvement in American policy towards Arab-Israeli peace.

Obama fulfilled some of the promises in his 2009 speech in Cairo, but not all. In that speech, Obama argued:

“There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground,” and that “recognizing our common humanity is only the beginning of our task. Words alone cannot meet the needs of our people. These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead; and if we understand that the challenges we face are shared, and our failure to meet them will hurt us all.”

In some respects today’s speech and Obama’s recent policies towards the Middle East have lived up to these promises: Obama promised to relieve $1 billion of Egypt’s debt and to provide $1 billion worth of borrowing, he asked the IMF and World Bank to create a comprehensive plan for democratic development in Tunisia and Egypt, he outlined a plan based on the post-Cold War reconstruction of Eastern Europe for the region’s economic development, he passed sanctions on Syria and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and he intervened in Libya with NATO (though the efficacy of this is as yet undetermined). In other respects, some of which Schake makes note of, Obama’s speech, and his policies in the region, have fallen short of these promises. For example, critics of today’s speech will note the, perhaps intentional, lack of any mention of Saudi Arabia, a country ruled by a monarchy, and it is as of yet unclear what the Obama administration will do regarding Yemen or Bahrain, or how it will react if the situation in Syria worsens.

Despite these omissions, Obama’s speech succeeded in continuing to frame US and Middle Eastern relations in a cosmopolitan light, emphasizing mutual respect, open dialogue and America’s willingness to aid and support the region. Obama began this process in Cairo in 2009, and today he reaffirmed those same aspirations and values.  In today’s speech, Obama underlined his, and America’s, empathy towards the people of the Middle East. He said “failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our own interests at their expense,” and “We have embraced the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator. There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity.” Through these speech-acts and by stressing that ownership of the Arab Spring belonged to the Middle East, and not America, Obama broke from the “American exceptionalism” tone that was a central aspect of the Bush administration’s framing of relations towards the region. While Bush pursued unilateral intervention and policies towards the Middle East, going as far as to directly intervene in Iraq and to declare Iran “evil”, Obama has preferred to emphasis mutual respect and dignified dialogue when addressing the region.

Perhaps the most significant moment of Obama’s speech came towards the end, when he outlined his vision of a way forward for Arab-Israeli peace. Obama argued that the basis for peace should rest on working towards a two state solution, and should start with redrawing the borders as they were prior to the 1967 Six-Day War. The United States has allowed Israel much leeway in discussions of Arab-Israeli peace, and so by advocating the pre-1967 borders Obama has promised to take away a small amount from Israel in favor of the Palestinians at the bargaining table. However, this promise is not nearly enough. Israel has had America’s unyielding support for decades, and, while the Palestinians are not wholly blameless (Hamas, for example, has consistently hindered peace negotiations) Israel will continue to resist negotiations as long as it has America to rely on for unwavering military and diplomatic support. Asking Israel, who is certainly in the position of power in negotiations with Palestine, to concede more of its demands could have spurred more constructive peace talks over the coming weeks.

Obama’s speech advanced his effort to remake relations with the Middle East by promising support for the democratic movements of the Arab Spring and by reaffirming the shared values of the US and the region, but failed to suggest a sweeping overhaul of US policy in the region. Despite a few novel promises, such as redrawing the proposed borders of an Arab-Israeli compromise and the offer of US aid and relief of debt to Egypt and Tunisia, Obama’s speech, for the most part, stuck to realistic goals for the short term. By avoiding any clear promises to Syria, Bahrain and Yemen and by only incrementally increasing pressure on Israel, Obama has guaranteed the maintenance of the status quo in US policy towards the Middle East while somewhat succeeding in appeasing audiences in Egypt, Tunisia, Israel and at home.

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