Obama's Middle East speech: Good but irrelevant

President Obama’s Middle East speech at the State Department today is likely to be positively received in Washington. Middle Easterners, however, will probably find it disappointing, or worse, irrelevant.

President Obama’s Middle East speech at the State Department today is likely to be positively received in Washington. Middle Easterners, however, will probably find it disappointing, or worse, irrelevant.

First off, to avoid major disappointment, it is always wise to lower expectations. Despite its eloquence, the speech was simply not going to wash away the reality that the United States has been irrelevant throughout this Arab Spring. It was also not going to remove or ease the enduring and profound tension between America’s short-term security interests and its long-term aspiration to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle East.

Mr. Obama can say all he wants that the two objectives are not incompatible. But until he makes a compelling case to Middle Easterners as to how the United States intends to achieve both goals simultaneously, and until he explains why the United States continues to fall short in reaching them, it is just empty rhetoric.

Without any doubt, the chief question that Obama asked in his speech – and that the entire world was waiting for – was what role the United States will play in this historic episode in the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, there was no clear or persuasive answer to that question. Obama insisted that the “status quo was unsustainable” in the Middle East and in US foreign policy toward that region, but he did not flesh out a new, bold vision that breaks with the past. And he did not call for a road map for the future.

The positives of Obama's speech

So here’s what we can do to make the discussions and evaluation of Obama’s speech more fruitful. If we put these two issues aside – America’s irrelevance in this historic episode and its inability to drastically change its strategy in the region – we can address other elements that were missing in the speech.

Let’s start with the positives. Obama was at his best when he discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (although many Palestinians and Arabs will be disappointed that he decided to address the most important issue to them at the very end). It was crucial that Obama mention very clearly that the foundation for the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians is the 1967 borders. That is quite a welcome change in US approach.

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Territorial and security issues should be discussed first, simply because progress on those matters, assumed to be easier to make, will build confidence between the two parties and create a positive momentum to tackle the thorny challenges of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees.

Obama was also genuine and creative when he discussed the importance of economic reform in the Middle East and how the United States intends to provide timely assistance on that front. Obama is right to state that closed economies in the region do not advance the cause of freedom and prosperity. He should be applauded for coming up with specific plans to help the countries of Egypt, Tunisia, and others in the their quest for economic development. Kudos to the USAID team at the State Department for the work they have done on that front.

The negatives

The negatives of the speech, however, can easily overshadow the positives. On a broader level, the speech did not fully appreciate the historic and game-changing nature of events in the Middle East. Mr. President, this is not about reform, it is about renewal. When Obama calls Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to reform and lead the transition to democracy, knowing full well that the dictator in Damascus will do neither, his words are not credible, to say the least.

Worse, they undermine the cause of freedom in Syria. What the Syrian people want is no less than what their Egyptian neighbors got – regime change. For Obama to call for a serious dialogue between the Syrian protesters and the regime is naïve and counterproductive. Obama should call on Mr. Assad to immediately step down. There simply is no alternative.

Finally, it is remarkable how Obama omitted Saudi Arabia in his speech, the country where the tension between US interests and values is most evident. Nobody expects Obama to push the Saudi leadership to embrace full-fledged democracy, but to say nothing about the kingdom’s repressive policies that deny basic rights to its women is quite shameful.

Also, where was Lebanon and its 2005 popular uprising in the speech? Lebanon’s one-million-people demonstrations should have been credited for instilling hope in the people of the region and setting the stage for the present revolutions. Obama’s deafening silence on Lebanon’s fate is unjustifiable.

US will be judged on actions, not words

Ultimately, America will be judged on its actions in the Middle East, not its words.

Take any professional Arab public opinion poll and it will show that Arabs perceive America through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not through its economic assistance packages to the region.

The United States is asked to do more to ease the suffering of the Palestinian people and help both Israelis and Palestinians reach the vision of two states for two peoples. Until Israeli-Palestinian peace happens, no speech will drastically change America’s image in the Middle East.

Bilal Y. Saab is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland’s Department of Government and Politics.

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