President Obama’s much-anticipated speech on the Arab Spring didn’t disappoint. Once again, his words were powerful and well delivered. Unlike many of his public addresses, it wasn’t simply that it sounded good. The strength was more in the substance than the power of the oratory (although the turns of phrases were there, too).
We will look back on today’s speech as Obama’s self-determination speech, and not simply because he repeated the word five times. It is that fundamental value — the right of any people to choose their own leaders and form of government — that Obama placed front and center today. According to the president, it was a hunger for self-determination that brought millions out into the streets, whether the revolutions have succeeded, stalled or are ongoing.
And, just as significantly, Obama pledged that the United States would look beyond its narrowest interests to stand with those who seek to fulfill their choice. As he said, “We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator.”
As Obama made his way around the region, his words meant different things to different people. For Tunisia and Egypt, there were words of support and partnership. He reiterated the rationale for stemming the massacre in Libya, while offering a last chance for Syria. (Why Bashar al-Assad has any credibility to pursue reform is one of the most perplexing questions left unanswered by his remarks today.) Obama expressed his dwindling patience for Yemen’s President Saleh. He singled out Iran’s hypocrisy of speaking out for protesters while smothering them at home. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians were offered much latitude for their failure to compromise. And, in perhaps the strongest message, Bahrain’s ruling family, a close ally, was upbraided for its crackdown against its own citizens and opposition.
If that was what was in the speech, what was left out? Two words: Saudi Arabia. I hadn’t expected the president to outline a new direction vis-a-vis the Saudi Kingdom. But for a speech heralding the administration’s approach to the Middle East after the Arab Spring to not even utter its name is a notable omission. Obama spent more than 5,600 words explaining how America’s national interests could be squared with our deep desire to see the Arab world free itself. Apparently, the White House concluded that even mentioning the Saudi regime would do too much damage to the case it was building.
It isn’t merely that Saudi Arabia maintains the type of repressive regime that Obama publicly decries. During this season of revolution, the Saudis sent their security forces into Bahrain to help squash the protesters, in essence sharing their repressive state tools to help stabilize Bahrain — the very country to which Obama offered a stern message of rebuke. So Bahrain should not engage in “mass arrests and brute force,” but the Saudis, who show it how, earn no mention at all?
No one expects U.S. foreign policy to come contradiction free. Even Arab youth protesting in the street will tell you that they aren’t surprised by the need for exceptions and caveats in American foreign policy. People hear what you say, as well as what you don’t.
“Our message is simple,” Obama said. “If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States.” Unless, of course, you are Saudi Arabia. In which case, we will pretend you don’t exist.