As the Arab Spring enters its sixth month, and at a time when some of the region’s autocrats are dramatically ratcheting up their repression, Obama’s effort to reset the U.S. relationship with a rapidly changing Middle East seemed to fizzle against the reality of America’s fading relevance.
Obama addressed for the first time the brutal crackdown in Syria, rebuked U.S.-allied Bahrain for its harsh oppression of Shiite dissidents and called, to Israel’s consternation, for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the basis of Israel’s 1967 borders — an unprecedented step for a U.S. president.
But for many in the region, it was simply too little, too late.
“I don’t think this is going to fix his image. He should have said something from the very beginning, but we’ve been waiting,” said Fares Braizat of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Qatar.
“Most people have realized that what the U.S. does or does not do is no longer important because people took matters into their own hands and decided their own future,” he said. “So why should people care what he says? America is no longer an issue.”
It might not have helped that Obama chose to deliver his speech on a Thursday evening, the beginning of the weekend for most of the Arab world, when almost everyone goes out.
On the streets of the historic Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo, a few people paused in front of televisions tuned to Obama’s speech, but most showed more interest in the soap operas and sports events being broadcast elsewhere. In Libya’s capital, Tripoli, most people thronging the central marketplace seemed unaware that the U.S. president was speaking.
For those who paid attention, there were plenty of signals to suggest that the United States is intending to adopt a more engaged and influential role in determining how the Arab upheaval plays out. Few in the region have forgotten the initially hesitant — and, many thought, belated — U.S. support for the successful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, which inspired the uprisings that are underway elsewhere.
Activists welcomed the toughest U.S. comments yet on Bahrain, the American ally that has brutally crushed its protest movement with the help of troops from Saudi Arabia — and, by extension, assumed U.S. complicity.
“Mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away,” Obama said, calling for dialogue between the kingdom’s authorities and opposition leaders, most of whom are in jail.
Obama also delivered the strongest warning yet to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been pursuing a relentlessly brutal effort to suppress a spontaneous and largely leaderless revolt in which at least 900 people have been killed. Many Syrians have interpreted Obama’s silence leading up to the speech as support for a regime whose fall many fear could lead to widespread regional instability.