The question among Middle East watchers over Thursday’s planned speech on the Arab Spring by President Obama has been this: Why would he address the Arab world at a moment when his policies have little hope of reversing diminished U.S. standing? After all, the Arab consensus views Obama has having failed miserably to deliver on the promises of his 2009 Cairo speech — and the White House has made clear that the President is not planning to announce any policy shifts on Thursday. So why bother to make the speech at all?
Answer: Obama’s Mideast “reset” speech is not aimed primarily at the newly empowered Arab public; its primary audience is Washington, where the Administration has taken a beating for its haphazard responses to Arab uprisings.
When Obama wanted the attention of the Muslim world in 2009, he spoke from one of its great capitals; on Thursday he’ll speak at Foggy Bottom. White House aides say his purpose is to tie together recent events in the Middle East — an attempt to weave a new narrative to package what has been a shambolic Mideast policy that risks leaving the United States on the wrong side of history in the region.
Sure, Obama would love to align the U.S. with the Arab Spring, but doing so in any meaningful way would require changes in Washington’s relationships with the Arab monarchies led by Saudi Arabia, and also with Israel. Neither option is on the table, which is why he’s not in a position to make a speech that generates Arab enthusiasm.
The central themes of Obama’s Cairo speech — dignity, justice and progress — were also those of the Arab rebellion, but the Arab public has been less than impressed by Washington’s response. The U.S. was initially hesitant to support democracy when friendly tyrants such as Hosni Mubarak were falling. It has confronted the repression by Col. Muammar Gaddafi, but turned a blind eye to that unleashed by U.S. allies in Bahrain – and has been caught somewhere in between on Syria.
The White House makes no apologies for responding to Arab rebellions on a case-by-case basis, guided less by principle than by American interest. But there’s nothing in that strategic realism to win the affections of the Arab public. Indeed, the Administration’s responses to the Arab uprisings have managed to simultaneously alienate Arab democrats who chide the U.S. having supported tyrants and being slow to support democracy, and also longstanding autocratic allies such as Saudi Arabia, which seethed at what it saw as Obama’s betrayal of a loyal friend in President Hosni Mubarak. The Arab Spring, in fact, has left Washington with diminished influence over both the new democracies (Libya a possible exception if there’s a happy ending to that standoff) and most of the surviving autocracies.
But the improvisational realism of the Administration’s responses to a fast-changing region needs to come wrapped in a good story. Hence Thursday’s speech.
White House aides suggest the President might use the address to paint Osama bin Laden as a figure of the past and the uprisings as a repudiation of his extremist ideas. How do you say “Duh!” in Arabic? Bin Laden has always loomed far larger in America’s nightmares than he has in the real life of the Arab world. Thematically linking bin Laden to the Arab Spring is a sign that Obama’s speech is part of America’s conversation with itself about how to approach the Arab world.
But if al-Qaeda has been the prism through which many Americans have viewed the Arab world, then the prism through which much of the Arab world judges America remains the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
President Obama seemed well aware of that when he spoke in Cairo. While affirming America’s bond with Israel and support for the principle of a Jewish homeland based on a tragic history — and castigated those who perpetuate vile stereotypes of Jews — he also spoke more eloquently than any American President ever had of the plight of the Palestinians: “For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”
The only way to resolve the conflict, he stressed, was the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel — the objective of the peace process. He urged Palestinians to adopt non-violent resistance tactics and demanded that Israel halt settlement activity, which he said was not legitimate and undermined the peace effort.
But having thrown down the gauntlet to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on settlements, Obama was eventually forced into a humiliating retreat by domestic political calculations that precluded a sustained diplomatic confrontation with a defiant Israeli prime minister. For the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors, President Obama had been the last hope for reviving a moribund peace process; once the settlement-freeze debacle made clear that he lacked the ability or will to pressure Israel to back down, the Palestinian leadership abandoned the illusion that bilateral talks under U.S. auspices could bring them an acceptable outcome.
Instead, the Palestinian leadership has begun to shrug off U.S. tutelage, ignoring Washington’s warnings against going to the United Nations and against bringing Hamas into a unity government. The Arab Spring had spurred young Palestinians to demand the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, but it has also prompted a new wave of unarmed civil disobedience — most vividly in last Sunday’s border protests.
The Arab Spring, among the Palestinians, will likely bring new, direct challenges to Israel both on the ground and on the diplomatic front — and the U.S. response is likely to further isolate it from the Arab public.
The L.A. Times reports that Obama’s speech will oppose the Palestinian move to seek recognition of a state based on the 1967 boundaries and “will emphasize the U.S. stance that direct talks between the parties, not unilateral efforts, are the best way to forge a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.” That may be a crowd-pleaser among Israel’s supporters in Washington, but saying the same thing before an Arab audience would invite snorts of derision. As far as Arabs are concerned, the Palestinians have tried that for two decades, to no avail, and Obama’s own track record has given them no reason to expect any different outcome. (The resignation, last Friday, of Obama’s Mideast Special Envoy George Mitchell appeared to confirm that suspicion.)
Administration officials have also indicated that the speech won’t offer new proposals on the peace process. But pablum about the urgency of peace negotiations is unlikely to impress the Arab public — or, for that matter, even Beltway insiders.
Still, with his reelection battle looming, the last thing Obama is likely to do now is get into another fight with Netanyahu. He hosts the Israeli leader at the White House on Friday, and on Sunday Obama plans to address the annual congress of the America Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), the flagship Israel lobbying organisation in Washington. His objective, in both settings, will be to shore up domestic political backing by demonstrating his support for Israel — AIPAC helpfully sent out an email to its members urging them to refrain from booing guest speakers.
Expect Obama to talk about bin Laden and about the threat of Iran’s nuclear program – another concern not exactly shared by the Arab public. He’ll castigate the thuggery of the Syrian regime, talk about the urgency of Israeli-Palestinian peace without offering any new initiatives, and offer development aid to struggling Arab economies. Israel’s leaders will be happy as long as they’re not blamed for the peace impasse. And the Arab world — both dictators and democrats — will get on with writing their own history, with little reference to Obama’s narrative.