Opinion: Obummer: What was missing from Obama’s Middle East speech
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Americans were hoping for a doctrine and perhaps a road map for how President Obama plans to handle the Middle East. Instead, many tuned into a speech on Thursday they felt presented a half-baked plan that didn’t address hot topics including the cost of war (in tax dollars and soldiers) and our dependency on foreign oil.
Here’s a selection of the commentary.
Pro: The president deserves praise for stating clearly that U.S. interests are advanced by a more democratic and prosperous Middle East (and not just by dictators who allow us to drill for oil or base troops in their countries). His determination to reach beyond elites and put the U.S. squarely on the side of the repressed rather than their repressors is truly commendable. Con: Obama didn’t talk enough about the tricky situations. At what point, for example, does it become necessary to go to war to fight on behalf of core American values? Obviously, the U.S. cannot use its military might to solve all the problems of the world, so how should it pick and choose? Nor did the president discuss what to do when our short-term interests clash with our long-term values -- as has been the case for many years with Saudi Arabia, a repressive, sexist, undemocratic Islamic monarchy that has been one of the United States’ chief allies in the region for decades (in no small measure because it sits on vast quantities of the oil that the U.S. economy subsists on). And how should the United States choose sides when legitimate interests appear to clash, as in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians? Obama spoke articulately about the need to reach a two-state solution, but said nothing about, for instance, how to redress the grievances of Palestinian refugees without undermining the very existence of Israel, to which he said the United States has an ‘unshakeable’ commitment.
Pro: Obama unfortunately skipped over some significant impediments to peace, including Israel’s settlements policy. Also missing from the broader picture was Saudi Arabia, whose oil-rich regime at least deserves mention withSyria, Iran, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen among the region’s most repressive. Con: Considering diplomatic sensitivities and the high potential to ruffle feathers, Obama deserves credit for offering straight talk. But it’s the wiggle room he left that could come back to haunt him.
Pro: The president’s address, trumpeted as a singular speech, really felt more like one in a series of conversations with the country. And that, I happen to like. When we went into Libya, it was without that national conversation. Con: The build-up to the president’s speech suggested it was his time to offer a coherent and fresh explanation of how, when and where we push American values in the Middle East. Sadly, it is nearly impossible to achieve a fresh start when you have troops on the ground, planes overhead and no end in sight.
Pro: It was a fine speech, but hardly a major one. There was some tough rhetoric on Bahrain and it was nice to see the President associate the United States more directly with the democratic revolts unfolding in the Arab world and to pledge acceptance of countries and movements that we disagree with but who at least accept ‘genuine and inclusive democracy.’ Con: But in general, I’m a bit mystified by the whole thing. As near I can tell there was no significant policy shift or announcement. Generally, the President doesn’t give major foreign policy speeches unless he has something new or important to say. There was little of that in this address (reiterating rhetorical support for democracy is not a policy shift) -- and little sense that the US would suddenly become more diplomatically and politically engaged in the region’s most pressing issues. So what exactly was the point?
Pro: In terms of policy, here’s the bottom line from the speech: The Obama administration will continue to get tougher on the Assad regime in Syria, while not doing much (if anything) in response to Bahrain’s violent crackdown on protesters. Con: What’s conspicuously missing from that list? Yup, Bahrain.
--Alexandra Le Tellier
President Obama speaks on U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa on Thursday. Credit: Jason Reed / Reuters