Obama's Middle East speech missed 'historic opportunity,' say many Arabs

While those involved in Arab uprisings welcomed Obama's support, others were disappointed with his failure to apologize for US support for Middle East dictators.

Amr Nabil/AP
Egyptians watch on television President Obama's Middle East speech, at a coffee shop in Cairo, on Thursday, May 19.

President Obama pledged American support for pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East Thursday, trying to put the US on the right side of history as he laid out his vision for US involvement in the region after the Arab Spring.

Those from nations where opposition movements are fighting brutal crackdowns welcomed the president’s messages of support. But what was billed as a major speech left some in the region nonplussed. They said that the speech didn’t cover new ground, was short on policy prescriptions, and that the president missed a chance to apologize for America’s history of supporting the dictators people revolted against.

“Obama really had an opportunity to reshape and reframe the debate and ... he gave it away,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, adding that there was nothing distinctive or imaginative about the address. “This speech was an opportunity to say to Arabs, ‘We as Americans made mistakes, we did not support democratic aspirations as much as we should have, but we’re going to do better.’ Obama didn’t say that.”

Marked difference from Obama's 2009 Cairo speech

The muted response to the speech differed markedly from the widespread interest and pockets of hope generated by Obama's landmark speech to the Muslim world from Cairo two years ago. Many felt that Obama has failed to follow through on the promises he made in 2009, and declined to give him another chance.

The protests that began six months ago have imparted to Arabs a strengthened sense of independence, even as subsequent uprisings have stalled with a bloody conflict in Libya, prolonged and brutal crackdowns in Syria and Yemen, and the near-total crushing of a protest movement in Bahrain. Obama said that the US aimed to throw its full weight behind supporting those uprisings.

“It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy,” he said, calling this moment a "historic opportunity" after years of accepting the status quo. “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."

Still, his words rang hollow to some in the region who see that US support for uprisings is not consistent across the region. But regarding Bahrain, where US criticism of the regime's crackdown on protesters has been muted, he spoke more forcefully than any US official has since the uprising began in February. He specifically criticized mass arrests and the use of "brute force."

“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,” he said. Later, he added, “Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.”

“I’m shocked because this is the first time we’ve seen such clear remarks about Bahrain,” says Mohammed Al Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights in the country's capital, Manama.

Yet Mr. Maskati said there was much left to be desired from the speech as well. Obama did not mention Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain, where more than 1,000 Saudi troops remain who helped quell the uprising, or make clear how the government could be compelled to talk with the opposition when its actions imply that it is decidedly opposed to negotiations.

'He can't say now that he was with the revolution'

In Egypt, where the US strongly supported former President Hosni Mubarak for 30 years, and resentment of that support still runs high, relatively few people paid attention to the speech. Some who did were critical.

“He gave a speech as if he was with the revolutions from the beginning,” says Emad Gad, an analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “But we know his administration was with Mubarak totally. He can’t say now that he was with the revolution.”

Mr. Obama did say that “for decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region,” adding later, “but if America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that at times our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for consistent change – with change that’s consistent with the principles that I’ve outlined today.”

But, says Mr. Hamid, “If you heard this speech in isolation, you would have thought that America had always naturally supported democracy. There was no acknowledgment of America’s very complex and sometimes tragic history in the Middle East."

Praise for economic aid to Egypt, support for Libya

On most topics, there were points that generated both criticism and praise. Some Egyptians welcomed the announcement of a multibillion-dollar economic assistance plan for Egypt, whose economy has struggled since the uprising as tourism and foreign investment have dried up. It will include up to $1 billion in debt relief, with the freed-up funds to be used for investment in growth and entrepreneurship. The US will guarantee $1 billion in borrowing for infrastructure and job creation, said Obama, and a $2 billion fund will be set up for investment in the private sector.

“That’s excellent news,” said taxi driver Mohamed Salem when he learned of the plan for debt relief. “Egypt is suffering. We welcome this. And I hope they will also bring all the money that Mubarak and his sons hid abroad.” Others were more skeptical, however, wondering about strings attached to the aid. Egypt was the No. 2 recipient of US aid for years after making peace with Israel.

On Libya, where the US along with NATO has undertaken military action, Obama made clear that he expected Col. Muammar Qaddafi to be removed from power, although he did not make clear how that would be accomplished.

"That reinforces in their mind that 'America is not going to leave you,' " says Mansour el-Kikhia, chairman of political science at the University of Texas, San Antonio, who has just returned from two weeks in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya. "Libyans ... know they want freedom and don't need Obama to tell them that ... [but] it is good they see that the United States is supporting what they are doing, that the US is not going to let them down with regard to Qaddafi."

And on Syria, some had hoped the president would come down hard on President Bashar al-Assad for his bloody crackdown on protesters. The president did so, condemning the Syrian crackdown, but he left the door open for Assad, saying, “The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.”

'The Arab-Israeli conflict doesn't need speeches'

Obama, who is set to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tomorrow at the White House, spent a fifth of the speech discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He called for a two-phased negotiation process, in which Israeli security and Palestinian sovereignty would be agreed upon in a first round of talks using the 1967 borders as a starting point, with the stickier issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees to be decided later.

He criticized both Israel and the Palestinian leadership, laying out a number of issues that need to be addressed.

But more rhetoric will not be helpful in solving the impasse, says Gad. “I think the Arab-Israeli conflict doesn't need speeches. It needs steps on the ground. If Obama wants to be effective, put pressure on all sides to resume negotiations.”

Staff writer Scott Peterson contributed reporting from Istanbul, Turkey.

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