President Obama’s big speech about the Arab Spring today — which concluded an hour ago — has been characterized as a “reset” in the way America deals with the Middle East. This is the wrong frame with which to view the speech. The reality is that the democratic movements in the region, many of which have emerged in opposition to U.S. backed dictators, augur a reset in the way the region deals with the United States. And the twilight of the region’s autocrats necessarily means that U.S. influence will be diminished.
So the right way to look at Obama’s speech is through this prism: What did Obama tell us today about how we should adapt to the region’s changing dealings with us — and to what is happening there outside our influence?
Obama attempted to deal with this question by stating clearly: “First, it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.” But in a general sense, the speech didn’t really resolve the tension at the heart of the question — the tension between Obama’s rhetoric of support for reform and the U.S. government’s support for governments that are cracking down on reform. United States ally Saudi Arabia went unmentioned. So did Lebanon. Obama did call out Bahrain, saying, “you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail,” and he also offered critical assessments of governments in Yemen, Syria, and Iran. But words only do so much.
Nor did Obama deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way likely to improve America’s image in the eyes of the speech’s intended audience. Obama reaffirmed U.S. support for Israel, while warning them that “the dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.” But he placed a greater emphasis on Israeli security than Palestian suffering. For the overwhelming majority of the Middle East, the priorities are reversed.
On another front, the element of the speech conservatives are most likely to seize on is Obama’s mention of Iraq.
Conservatives have long sought to claim credit for the Arab Spring, as though George W. Bush himself came up with the idea that Arabs would prefer self-determination to autocratic rule, and they cite Iraq as proof. Obama said:
Indeed, one of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict. In Iraq, we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy. There, the Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence for a democratic process, even as they have taken full responsibility for their own security. Like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress. As they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.
Conservatives may claim this as vindication of the decision to go to war with Iraq, but it isn't. Years of turmoil and death, ongoing violence and instability make it less than a model for the region. Indeed, dictators in the region tried to tamp down democratic aspirations by portraying Iraq as the inevitable consequence of democratization. As Obama said in his speech, “we cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people, and we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to impose regime change by force — no matter how well-intended it may be.” Yet Republicans, in accusing Obama of weakness for not singlehandedly delivering victory to democratic protesters in the region, are implicitly demanding that Obama do just that.
Sadly, this is an admission of how limited U.S. statements of support for democratic movements in the Middle East are. There’s little chance for change in how Arabs and Muslims view the United States as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved, the U.S.’s military footprint in the Muslim world remains significant, and the U.S. does little more than wag its finger at allies engaged in brutal crackdowns against their own people.
In many ways this was a beautiful speech, particularly its emphasis on universal human rights and historical comparisons to America’s own movements for change. But the allusions to our own history, while meaningful to us, may not resonate much with the speech’s intended Mideast audience. Obama can give all the speeches he wants, but absent progress on those fronts, negative perceptions of the U.S. in the region are unlikely to change. America’s problems in the Middle East have never been about what it has said, but about what it has done.