There were plenty of mom-and-apple-pie platitudes about democracy, human rights, and praise for the youths who "will shape the future." The political change of the past six months in Egypt and Tunisia and the ongoing revolts in Syria and Libya, neither guided nor inspired by the US, presents a "historic opportunity" to "pursue the world as it should be."
But amid the sweet-sounding words were plenty of lines and passages that will do more to rankle the average Middle Eastern audience than convince them that a radically new American approach is in the offing.
Exhibit A would be his comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I'm going to leave most of that aside for a later post. But suffice it to say that a speech that includes numerous calls for Arab "self-determination" while also telling Palestinians that "efforts to delegitimize Israel (by seeking UN recognition of an independent Palestinian state) will end in failure" was not well received.
(There were also bits to anger Israelis; he twice referred to Israel's "occupation" of Palestinian land).
Other flat notes will have been heard in things unsaid. Things like "Saudi Arabia" and "Jordan." (Well, Jordan came up in the context of sharing a border with the West Bank). After all, President Obama, referring to Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian who committed suicide by setting himself on fire last December, touching off a wave of political demands that has changed much of the region, said that "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."
Yet Jordan and Saudi, both monarchies with tight controls on politics and other freedoms, remain staunch US allies. Jordan is one of the largest per capita recipients of US economic aid in the world. Wealthy Saudi Arabia remains a major purchaser of US weapons. The two countries are currently discussing a $60 billion deal to buy F-16s and related weapons systems. And the Associated Press reports today that the US is moving forward in equipping and training a 35,000 member "special security force" for Saudi Arabia. That comes at a time when Saudi has been a key supplier of troops to neighboring Bahrain who have assisted in the brutal crackdown against democracy protesters.
There, Obama's speech held out a little more promise for regional reformers. "For this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain," Obama said, something that Bahrain won't like, since the Sunni monarchy has denied destroying Shiite mosques.
Bahrain's Shiites, a majority of the population, are second-class citizens, and thousands have been fired from their jobs since democracy protests began. Hundreds of activists have been rounded up, and some have complained of torture in jail. Obama stood, somewhat, with the democracy movement when he said: "The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail."
However, he offered no concrete US threats to compel any change, something that will be seized upon by many in the region eager to accuse the US of hypocrisy. The United States backed military action against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and backs sanctions against Syria. Bahrain, a good friend and home of the US Fifth Fleet, is simply urged to change.
To be sure, first reactions to speeches like this are often mixed. Here's the first paragraph of a Reuters piece, written from Washington DC: "President Barack Obama on Thursday threw his weight behind the tumultuous drive for democratic change in the Arab world and presented his most detailed vision yet on the path to elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace."