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Robert Grenier
Robert Grenier
Former CIA station chief Robert Grenier heads ERG partners, a financial consultancy firm.
Obama: Leadership in the passive voice
While vaguely supporting democratic values in the Arab world, Obama's speech ignored the most difficult questions.
Last Modified: 20 May 2011 19:16
Obama's speech left many questions unanswered in the Middle East, where pro-democracy protests with hope of change have had mixed results [GALLO/GETTY]

While introducing President Obama at the state department on Thursday for his much-anticipated Middle East speech, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton asserted that "America's leadership is more essential than ever". This anodyne phrase reflects a traditional view of America's role in the world, faithfully delivered by a reliably conventional thinker. Unfortunately for the secretary, however, the man who followed her to the podium quickly gave the lie to such conventional sentiments. For however one might characterise the leadership role of the US in Obama's political cosmology - and there are many positive ways to do so - "essential" is not a word which readily comes to mind.

In making his second sweeping policy address to the Muslim world, and the first since the outbreak of widespread popular democratic uprisings in the region, this self-consciously progressive US president immediately made clear that he did not intend to be left on the wrong side of history. Eager as always to distinguish himself from his predecessors, he asserted that "…after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be".

The president's use of the word "pursue" in this context may have conveyed greater meaning than he intended. Indeed, for all his high-minded, pro-democracy rhetoric, replete with allusions to America's history and its championing of universal human rights, one came away from the president's speech with the clear idea that although the US would be standing with democratic forces, its place would be not in the vanguard, but in the rear - not leading the charge, but supporting and reinforcing progress as and when it occurred.

Of course, in promising economic and other support to fledgling democracies in Tunisia and Egypt, Obama was citing the easy cases. In others, where the democratic aspirations of the people are being resisted with violence, the president's ardour was far less pronounced. Nearly sounding apologetic, he was at pains to stress, yet again, the highly exceptional circumstances which led to US support for armed international intervention in Libya.

Assad the bashful reformer?

And regarding Syria, having apparently pushed forward targeted sanctions on the Assads just in time for his speech, Obama struck a tone which bordered on the absurd. Having denounced the Syrian regime for choosing the path of "…murder and…mass arrests", he nonetheless addressed the bloodied Bashar al-Assad as though he were some potential, but mysteriously bashful reformer:  "He can lead that transition [to democracy], or get out of the way." As my son would say:  "As if."      

Regarding the Gulf monarchies, where current US policy towards the Arab Spring is most clouded in contradictions and apparent hypocrisy, the president was careful not to say too much. To his credit, he did repeatedly cite Bahrain. Making clear that the US has other interests in the island and is committed to its security, Obama nonetheless stressed that "mass arrests and brute force" are inconsistent with the universal rights of Bahrainis. If Bahraini democrats were looking for a real champion in Washington, however, this speech made clear that where other, more narrow US interests intrude, US advocacy on their behalf will be limited to suggestions that the Bahraini government "create conditions for dialogue".

Indeed, this should surprise no one. All countries need to counterbalance competing interests, and the US, as a global power, is no exception. The president should at least get credit for having the good grace to admit that "…there will be times when our short-term interests don't align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region". 

In the context of that long-term vision, if the Obama administration has any thoughts concerning the manner in which history is likely to treat absolute monarchies in the region without internal reform, this speech suggests that it is keeping those views to itself. Again, far from staking out a position regarding a long-term, mutual interest in political reform among the kingdoms and advocating for it, US policy is more likely to take on a nagging, nanny-like posture. In short, the counter-revolutionaries in Riyadh, Amman and elsewhere will not have been pleased by what they heard in the president's speech, but likewise will they know that they have nothing to fear - until the day their own people turn on them.

US-led peace process is dead

But if we see in the regional stance laid out by Obama a clear tendency towards post-imperial deference, nowhere is he more passive than on the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Making it clear that "the status quo is unsustainable", Obama nonetheless makes it just as clear that he will exert no pressure on Israel to move towards a solution, and will actively work to stymie any Palestinian effort to exert pressure for a settlement outside a moribund bilateral process.  

Rather than actively promote his own peace plan, the president instead passively recounts what "everyone knows" regarding the necessary components of a negotiated solution, as though the US had no real stake in the outcome beyond a sense of wounded altruism. Indeed, if there were any doubts as to whether the so-called US-led peace process were finally dead, this speech should put an end to them.

Traditionalists no doubt will complain that Obama is passing up a chance at real leadership in a region vital to US interests, and poised to make real progress along lines which naturally engage core US values. Others will embrace his approach as consistent with the need to rebalance a situation in which the US has become both economically and militarily overstretched. 

Whatever one's view of America's rightful place in the world, however, it is clear that - for now at least - the US cannot escape the burden of leadership. But it is just as clear, given the reinforcement of this speech, that while Obama's United States will continue to lead, it will seek to do so in the passive voice.

Robert L Grenier is chairman of ERG Partners, a financial advisory and consulting firm. He retired from the CIA in 2006, following a 27-year career in the CIA's Clandestine Service. Mr Grenier served as Director of the CIA Counter-Terrorism Center (CTC) from 2004 to 2006, coordinated CIA activities in Iraq from 2002 to 2004 as the Iraq Mission Manager, and was the CIA Chief of Station in Islamabad, Pakistan before and after the 9/11 attacks.

Previously, he was the deputy National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, and also served as the CIA’s chief of operational training. He is credited with founding the CIA’s Counter-proliferation Division. Grenier is now a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and speaks and writes frequently on foreign policy issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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