This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 19/05/2011
President Obama had three significant challenges for his "major address" on the Middle East:
- Explain his administration's seemingly contradictory responses to uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria
- Support the forces of democratic change in the region; and
- Describe how to manage the conflict between our interests and our values in a region where they are often in conflict.
The president laid claim to "a new chapter in American diplomacy," which he described as "shifting our foreign policy after a decade of war." But the vision he now endorses for the universality of American values has actually been the basis for our foreign policy in the Middle East for several administrations, most stridently that of his immediate predecessor -- it was President Obama's policies that had sought to tone down the emphasis our values in order to work more constructively with the repressive governments of Iran and Syria, as well as the repressive governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
He said of democracy's advance that "change will not be denied." But isn't it being denied in Bahrain, in Syria, in Yemen, in Iran? The president said yes, but didn't explain why our policies are different toward those governments. Instead, he continued to promote the sophistry that there is no conflict between our values and our interests. Can anyone tell what our policy toward Saudi Arabia will be as the result of the president's speech? I doubt it.
Obama said our values must be a top priority and supported by all the tools of our power. Yet he was long on pedantry and short of concrete proposals. The policies he outlined fell far short of the standard he himself set. The whole of government approach he advocated sums up to: asking the World Bank to come up with a G-8 proposal for assistance to Tunisia and Egypt, relieving $1 billion in debt for Egypt and another billion in loans, vague promises of enterprise funds and facilitation of trade and incentives for reform and penalizing corruption -- all without any specificity as to how we might achieve that. Debt relief is a good thing, and so is credit from the Export-Import Bank. But is this really all we have on offer for a top priority supported by all the tools of our power? His national security team should have provided him a much better developed program of policies in advance of a major speech.
Scheduling the speech on the eve of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's arrival further increased the degree of difficulty for the president, given the administration's inability to make progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues. But President Obama argued that current circumstances make peace more urgent than ever, then proceeded to propose nothing new. He stood boldly for a viable Palestine and a secure Israel. How is this news?
What will Middle Easterners think of the president's speech? Jon Alterman from CSIS put it best: "There's not a huge amount of curiosity about what the president thinks." President Obama's speech today did nothing to change that.
The president's message seems to be that we will speak out on core principles while doing little to promote them. This is likely to incur to American foreign policy all of the detriments of acrimony from governments whose assistance we need and charges of hypocrisy from those working for change, without accruing the benefits of actually fostering change.
The Bush administration is rightly criticized for being long on vision and deficient in day-to-day management for advancing that vision. The Obama administration has taken two and a half years to more or less endorse that vision while demonstrating an equal deficiency in in the conduct of its policies