Let Obama Be Clear, But Can He?

By Lina Sawan

When Hillary Clinton introduced Barack Obama’s long-awaited speech on Middle East policy to the State Department on Thursday May 19, her introduction pinpointed the purpose of the highly-anticipated speech, or what may come to be regarded as Obama’s flattest public offering yet.

Clinton stressed the “sophisticated understanding” that the US has of its role in the world and managed to present it as a feature of the current administration. This claim was made for both international and local consumption in spite of, or maybe due to, the historical fact that the US administration was seen to be surprised and confused by both the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. It was, after all, Clinton who had declared on the eve of the Egyptian revolution on January 25th that the Government of Egypt was “stable”, thus becoming a shining example of American gaffes in MENA policy.

Mrs Clinton’s short introduction failed to heighten excitement for the President’s speech; instead it highlighted what the speech lacked. As Obama spoke, there was no evidence that the US has grasped any new truths about the region and its people. Even the lengthy recounting by Obama of Tunisian events starting from Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-sacrifice neither revealed further insight into the reasons of discontent in the Arab world; nor added anything of value to the examination of the tsunami that brought down Obama’s friends.

Some US journalists had anticipated the speech to be the one that would define shifts in US foreign policy. The Christian Monitor had said on May 13, 2011:“Considering America’s ad hoc response to the Arab Spring so far – and the historic opportunity to support democracy in the region – he needs to put a coherent strategy before the public and Congress”. It could be argued that Obama chose to read out a poor version of his 2009 speech in Cairo, adding certain mentions only because they were forced upon him by current events, and leaving out large commitments so as not to remind the world that he had not delivered on his promises of two years ago.

The references to the Middle East as the cradle of civilisation echoed his praise of Islam in Cairo, so did the emphasis that the US was born through revolution and on principles such as “all men are created equal”. The themes of partnerships, common interests, withdrawal from Afghanistan, democracy in Iraq, religious freedom, sectarianism, women’s rights, American involvement in economic development ,education and networking amongst the youth recurred. Yet, this time around, Obama was offering less of the same.

No more was there a need for a lengthy call to denounce violence and terrorism. In fact, terrorism was mentioned only when Obama turned to Iran, and later to denounce Hamas as Fatah’s partner in peace negotiations. Instead, he affirmed that the US killed Osama Bin Laden whose influence, he suggested, had dwindled well before his death. This, according to Obama, was evident in the peoples’ successful choice of peaceful revolutions instead of violence. “By the time we found bin Laden, al Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end,” he said, “and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands”. This unfortunate coercion of Al Qaeda’s agenda and the people’s liberation movements into a common time capsule pointed to the timeworn and illusory understanding in America that Al Qaeda had a real and equal opportunity to depose and replace Arab dictators.

There was a fleeting mention of nuclear weapons in connection to Iran. But the President of the United States preferred to attack Iran with the timelier theme of democracy. It was interesting to hear Obama accuse Iran of hypocrisy while the world expected him to explain, if not right-out apologise for the contradictions between US ideals and US endorsement of autocratic regimes.

In 2009, the Palestinian issue was the second item on his agenda and Obama chose stronger rhetoric including saying that there ought to be “no doubt (that) the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable… (that) America will not turn (its) backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own … (and that) the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements”.

This time Obama’s speech carried no such detail fleeting over crucial matters such as the right of a Palestinian state to protect itself equal to that of Israel’s. Also, there was no gesture towards the continued human suffering in Gaza in contrast to the focus put on it when he spoke in Cairo. Even though Obama approached the Palestinian-Israeli issue by describing it as a “cornerstone” of Middle East policy, he did place it at the end of the speech possibly hoping to separate it from the call for freedom in the rest of the Arab countries as well as to strip it of its immense influence on the region’s new power-map.

The difficulty Obama encountered when talking about a Palestinian state went beyond an accidental stutter at its first mention. He presented the legal land of Palestinians as if it were a recent development saying: “The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River.”  While he mourned the image of a woman who died in Iranian demonstrations as “seared” in American memory, he failed to refer to the most recent Israeli shooting and killing of unarmed Palestinians during the demonstrations at the Israeli borders on May 15th -Nakba Day. Obama talked about Israelis living in fear of having their children blown up on buses and did not explain that the “Jewish state” that he supports means the continuation of an extreme racist apartheid regime in the heart of the region. He also discounted the matters of Jerusalem and the refugees’ right to return from what he regarded as an important first step of agreement on “territory and security”.

The tenacity by which Obama expressed dedication to an unbreakable bond with Israel, no matter what acts Israel commits, erodes what might be the remaining little of  America’s dignity and influence in the region. Also, as Obama disregards the value of announcing a Palestinian state in a by-the-by attitude referring to it as “symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September”, he moves the USA against the majority opinion of the international community, which includes Arab oil-rich regimes which are beginning to feel the pressures of their own street anger.

The one point of interest in Obama’s treatment of the Palestinian issue was that he endorsed a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, thus becoming the first American president to explicitly do so and the instant target of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wrath. Shortly after the speech and before he headed to Washington D.C., Netanyahu objected that a full retreat to the 1967 borders would be unrealistic as had been agreed in 2004 with George W Bush. The Republicans are also using this point to attack Obama as someone who “threw Israel under the bus”.

Obama mentioned trouble in Yemen, Libya and Bahrain, but not Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the latter. He also called for reforms in Syria stopping short of demanding accountability of its President for civilian deaths.

If the world expected to hear a coherent strategy for the Middle East, what it got was Obama’s reiterated demands for democracy that excluded friendly dictators. This selectivity used to infuriate the Arab peoples. After the revolutions, it simply reconfirms their suspicion that the US is “a crude stereotype of a self-interested empire”, a description Obama used and rejected in 2009.

Overall Obama conveyed, at least to his Arab listeners, American sagacity whereby the know-all American shows himself to be ready to teach the rest of the world the ways of democracy. He is also willing to roll up his sleeves and work side-by-side with every young and old, man and woman towards a strong economy that would put “food on the table”. The scenario that the revolutionaries would be interested in food , undoubtedly a legitimate concern, without being concerned about where the food came from and at what price, points towards further misunderstanding of the core issues behind the Arab Awakening.

It could be said that the only clear strategy that was announced was the willingness of the US to win over new governments by cancelling their debts.  Obama announced debt relief for both Tunisia and Egypt who welcomed the offer. But US aid is a different matter. Egypt had already and officially rejected US aid worth USD 150 million saying that it included too many conditions. On May 30th, it was reported that the US embassy in Cairo received a formal letter from the Egyptian Foreign Minister declaring that the Egyptian government rejects US conditions on aid and unilateral coercive economic measures by the US Agency for International Development.

President Obama is in the unenviable place between Israel and his re-election. His choices are limited to his rhetoric and do not include making or announcing new policies in the volatile MENA region. He may be of the habit of starting his sentences with idioms such as “Let there be no doubt” and “Let me be clear”. Yet, at the end of his speech on May 19, he left his strategy regarding the new Middle East and North Africa still in doubt and quite unclear.

– Lina Sawan is a London-based television journalist, producer and talk-show host, known for her programmes on controversial social issues in the MENA region. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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