Obama’s speech: Stuttering into the future?

The US president tried to explain the disconnect between vision and reality.

The Arab world has been swept with massive  protests demanding freedom and democracy

President Obama is known as an eloquent and even gifted orator. Yet in the two years since his Cairo speech the difference between rhetoric and vision on the one hand, and reality and “strategic interests” on the other, has become all to clear.

So it’s not surprising that few people had high hopes for his speech to the State Department today about US policy towards the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the uprisings across the region.

The tone and cadences of the President’s speech left no doubt about the different world we inhabit today versus two years ago. If you watch the speech, his voice was louder and more melodic then, his language a bit more folksy and confident.

Today it was much more reserved and humble; more of a commentator on events rather than a shaper of them. This despite the fact that the purpose of the speech was precisely to outline a new vision for America’s role in the region’s transitions.

The President grounded his talk in recent history, recounting the story of the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammad Bouazzizi who lit himself on fire to protest his humiliation and lack of chance to earn a decent living.

This was clearly both to educate Americans who are coming late to the Arab revolutionary winter and spring and tell the Muslim world that he understands the “sparks” that reflect the frustration, humiliation and lack of dignity of the majority of the region’s peoples. But recognising sparks and helping fuel the fire of real freedom are two very different things.

I argued in my last column that the raid that killed Osama bin Laden demonstrated President Obama’s the courage to kill, but not to lead. I wish I could say I was wrong after today’s speech, and it’s hard not to sympathise with the enormity of the task President Obama is facing.

But his language suggests that whatever his desires for the region, he feels powerless actively to reshape the status quo, not merely in the region itself, where he rightly argues that the people need to lead the way, but here at home, where the entire national security apparatus is geared to continuing the status quo.

Words vs deeds

Indeed, right in the middle of Obama’s speech I received an email of a just published AP article describing a “vast” secret new US-Saudi security alliance that is taking shape in the sands of Arabia; the very same sands into which Secretary of State Clinton argues the region will sink if its leaders don’t change.

How can the US push for democratisation, economic reform, human rights and an end to corruption when at the very moment the President is speaking about these issues his military and security officials are doing their best to prop up the very system against which he is arguing?

The harsh choices the President faces, the pressure of duplicity and the hypocrisies in which they have forced him to engage, became evocatively clear during his speech when he began talking about Bahrain. Obama is a seasoned orator and most of this speech was delivered without pause or mistake.

But when he turned to Bahrain suddenly the President uncharacteristically stuttered. It was the most obvious “tell” that he was playing a hand that was much weaker than what he was making it out to be.

The discussion of Bahrain came right after he declared that Yemeni President Salah “must follow through on his commitment to transfer power.” These fairly strong words, however, were not backed up by a statement of what the President intends to do if Mr. Salah refuses to heed his wishes, without which admonishments mean little.

Will the US reduce its level of security assistance and aid to his government? If not, and if there are no other sanctions, what reason is there for him to comply until he feels the moment is right?

Turning to Bahrain, Mr. Obama explained that “we recognise that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law.”

This was the first sign of trouble, as there is very little evidence of Iran attempting to “take advantage” of the turmoil in Bahrain in any meaningful sense, while the trouble with Bahrain’s government is precisely that it has displayed little if any interest in the rules of any law aside from the law of power and privilege for the Sunni elite.

When the President followed by arguing that “the government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate,” he ignored the fact that uprising began in Bahrain in good measure because the government refused to enter into an honest dialogue. Treating the two sides as if they each have an equal role in the “turmoil” is a gross mis-statement of the relations of power between them, a mistake Obama made more than once in his speech.

It’s interesting to contemplate why the President stuttered during this section. Perhaps Bahrain was a late addition to the speech, against the wishes of his national security team (who managed to keep Saudi Arabia, the most repressive regime in the region, out of the speech).

Or perhaps he was thinking of the doctors and nurses who’ve been arrested and tortured merely for treating injured protesters, or the jailed, beaten and killed activists, or journalists, who suffer increasing harassment and worse with each new day, and realised how empty his words will ring in Manama if they are not backed up by a very real “Or else…”

Or else… what?

And that is the basic problem with Mr. Obama’s speech. He rightly declared that “we need to speak honestly about the principles we believe in with friend and foe alike,” but talk is cheap, and the President knows this. Actions matter, not just in Libya where thousands have died, but in other countries where the numbers are lower but the impact equally as dire for the future of democratic reform.

Mr. Obama tried to explain the disconnect between vision and reality by declaring that while “it is the people themselves who must determine [their future]… there will be times when our short term interests don’t align with our long term vision.” But our “short term interests” have in fact lasted for more than half a century. If they are short term, what does he consider long term?

He continued that the “US opposes the use violence and oppression against the peoples of the region. [We] support a set of universal rights, include free speech, free of religion, of peaceful assembly, equal for men and women under the rule of law, the right to choose one’s leaders… And we support political reform that can meet the needs of ordinary people across the region.” But again, if the support is limited to rhetoric or is inconsistent then it is empty and will be seen as such.

Perhaps hypocrisy is the necessary handmaiden of diplomacy and realpolitik. Yet the President seemed at times to be trying to convince himself, or more likely the American foreign policy, security and economic establishments whose interests he must reflect, of the importance of supporting the rights of the millions taking to the street across the region: “The failure to speak to the aspirations of ordinary people will allow suspicion to fester that the United States only pursues its interests at their expense,” Mr. Obama warned his audience, before declaring that core American interests pursued by America are  “not hostile to peoples hopes but central to them.”

Yet if this were so, then our “short term interests” would be much more closely aligned to theirs, and to the vision Mr. Obama was trying to articulate in the speech. But of course they are not, and that is what make is so hard for him to articulate them in a way that does not sound hypocritical.

“Through moral force of non-violence the people of the region achieved more change in six months than terrorists have in decades,” he rightly declared. But this change was, according to his own logic, against the short term-and long term, if truth be told-interests of the United States (or at least of those with the power to represent themselves as protecting those interests).

The question that Obama didn’t answer was how the long term vision would actually, at the level of policy and action, become short term policy?

Going backwards with the Peace Process

Of course, few countries embody the “or what?” problem Mr. Obama faces better than Israel, one of the three main subjects of his speech. Mr. Obama clearly had an almost impossibly thin tightrope to walk upon here, as any possible substantive remark he could make would alienate either Israelis and their American supporters, or the tens of millions of Arabs watching his speech in the region.

And he tried to appeal to both at the start, by bringing the suffering of the two peoples into the same context. “For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could get blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own.”

Touching words, but hardly balanced or even accurate. It is true that Israelis worry about losing children to terror or to rockets. But what of the fear of Palestinians of losing children and loved ones in the rubble from American-made helicopters and war planes used by the IDF?

The numbers are so skewed against Palestinians in this regard that it is an act of historical vandalism to counter pose the death of Israeli children against Palestinian “humiliation,” as if Palestinians haven’t died in far greater number by Israeli bombs and rockets, or suffered the pain of institutionalized hatred against them on both sides of the Green Line that has been far more traumatic than what Israelis suffer because of the animosity directed against them in the Arab world.

The President immediately followed up with another false equation, comparing the continuation of Israeli settlements with Palestinians walking away from talks, when it was in fact that former that caused the latter.

Indeed, most every remark that the President made about Israel and Palestine was substantively wrong: his arguments that Palestinians-not merely one party or group, but the collectivity of Palestinians-continue to “delegitimize Israel” and are “denying the right of Israel to exist” is false.

And his warning that Palestinian attempts to obtain a declaration at the UN recognizing their statehood is merely a “symbolic action to isolate Israel” betrays a gross misunderstanding-or at least mis-statement-of Palestinian intentions, which reflect a justifiable lack of hope at the US ever supporting with actions rather than words the establishment of a Palestinian state.

One could argue that in this speech the President did just that, specifically by stating plainly that the US supports the creation of a Palestinian state “with borders that should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps… in a sovereign and contiguous state.”

This statement, which in fact has long been official (if for a long time, unstated) US policy, was part of a larger plan the President outlined, where by the two sides would address “territory and security” issues first, producing an agreement that would “provide a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians.”

For Obama, the two most difficult issues, Jerusalem and the right of return, would be dealt with later. But here too the plan is striking in its basic failures of logic and historical awareness.

First, no Palestinian state could come into being unless, at the very least, Jerusalem was resolved, with its borders redrawn so that the majority of the Eastern part of the city would become the capital of a Palestinian state.

So what he is calling for, in effect, is precisely the flawed stages model that doomed Oslo-that is, the belief that starting with more easily resolved issues and, as confidence builds, addressing “final status” issues, was the best path towards peace.

All this model did was allow Israel to create more facts on the ground that made peace harder, not easier to achieve once there was no possibility of delaying final status talks any further.

And now President Obama seems to want to divide final status issues into yet another subdivision, of semi-final and really final status issues (tell that to Basem and Naji Tamimi, peace activists who have been jailed by Israel to pressure other inhabitants of their village Nabi Saleh from protesting against the occupation. An email about their plight from Jewish Voices for Peace arrived in my inbox literally as Obama was outlining his new plan for negotiations).

Indeed, the plan laid out by Obama is essentially the strategy advocated by the Israeli right: a phased solution on which actual final conclusion of the conflict is postponed into some mythical future when conditions are “right.”

Palestinians would never buy this, and rightly so. And as the clashes last weekend by refugees along Israel’s borders shows (but which Obama must have missed), they are not about to let the refugee questions drift in the wind much longer either.

It’s the economy, or is it?

The final main focus on the President’s speech was his offer of large-scale aid to the countries of the region that are engaging in democratic reform. Obama naturally is focusing most of his initial aid on Tunis and Egypt, given their vanguard role in the democratic openings.

It is here that the President’s logic seems strongest: no one can deny that economic considerations, in particular rampant poverty and lack of job opportunities, have been one of the root causes of the uprisings in the Arab world, and will doom any move towards democracy if they don’t address fundamental economic problems at the same time.

Nor can one find much fault with his desire to help young people receive better education and open up economies for greater trade, but there is a basic structural flaw in Obama’s fou-point plan for helping to improve the region’s economic performance.

First, asking the IMF and World Bank to take the lead to “stabilize and modernize” the economy is a bad idea. These two institutions have a very bad reputation across the region (and the developing world more broadly), and rightly so.

They have at almost every turn encouraged policies that harmed the population of Arab countries while encouraging greater concentration of wealth and greater corruption. For most people in the developing world, including the Arab world, “stabilisation” and “modernisation” are code words for screwing the poor while modernizing the elite’s ability to exploit and police them.

Telling the Arab world that the IMF and Bank are coming to help them is a lot like telling someone in a burning house that you’re sending the arsonist who set the fire to lead the fire brigade charged with putting it out.

Second, Obama’s offer to relieve Egypt, for example, of its large debt is little more than a repeat of the reward Egypt and other countries received after the 1991 Gulf War for participating on the US side. Without a major structural change so that Egypt and other countries can have a greater redistribution of wealth, will only allow for more borrowing by the elite whose costs will be passed onto the rest of society.

Finally, trying to gear up MENA economies to compete in a world market as largely export-oriented economies is going to prove a near impossible task. How can these countries compete with China and Southeast Asia, which have even lower production and labor costs, and where it is precisely the corruption and lack of democracy and accountability that enable them to be “competitive” in the global production market. Without leveling the global economic playing field in terms of labor and environmental rights, all joining the system will do will be to push wages down even further

Moving beyond easy histories

The President ended his talk with some eloquent historical analogising, explaining that while Americans might find the upheavals in the Arab world unsettling, “our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire.

Our people fought a painful civil war that extended freedom and dignity to those who were enslaved. And I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of non-violence as a way to perfect our union – organizing, marching, and protesting peacefully together to make real those words that declared our nation: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”

These are noble words, and it would in fact be a wonderful thing if the United States supported a non-violent rebellion against empire. But of course, that would in essence mean a rebellion against itself, and mean ending the support of all the region’s regimes that are using American weapons, aid, and support to suppress the peoples whose lives they control.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He has authored several books including Overthrowing Geography: Jaffa, Tel Aviv and the Struggle for Palestine (University of California Press, 2005) and An Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).

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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