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Arab disappointment with Obama

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaking in Marrakech, Morocco, on Nov. 3.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaking in Marrakech, Morocco, on Nov. 3. (Abdeljalil Bounhar/associated Press)

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By Jackson Diehl
Monday, November 30, 2009

It's been nearly six months since Barack Obama stirred hearts and raised hopes across much of the Arab world with his much-promoted Cairo address. Many came away from it expecting a new and more vigorous U.S. attempt to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Others hoped for more American sympathy and support for liberal reform in countries where free expression, women's rights and democratic elections are blocked by entrenched autocracies.

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The peace-process bubble burst two months ago at the United Nations, when Obama's poorly executed attempt to launch final-settlement talks between Israelis and Palestinians collapsed. Arabs who were led by Obama's rhetoric to believe that the United States would force Israel to make unprecedented unilateral concessions -- like a complete end to all construction in Jerusalem -- were bitterly disappointed.

But they are not the only victims of post-Cairo letdown. Arab reformers, who for most of this decade have been trying to break down the barriers to social and political modernization in the Middle East, have also begun to conclude that the Obama administration is more likely to harm than to help them.

"All Arab countries are craving change -- and many of us believed Obama was a tool for change," says Aseel al- Awadhi, a Kuwaiti member of parliament. "Now we are losing that hope."

Awadhi, one of four women elected to Kuwait's parliament this year, is part of a movement that the Bush administration loudly promoted and sporadically attempted to help -- though the effort steadily waned during George W. Bush's second term. The Obama administration, in contrast, often speaks as if it does not recognize the existence of an Arab reform movement. Bush's frequently articulated argument that political and social liberalization offer the best antidote to Islamic extremism appears absent from this administration's thinking.

"People in Jordan are beginning to understand that the United States will not play the same role as under the old administration on democracy," said Musa Maaytah, Jordan's minister of political development -- who, like Awadhi, visited Washington recently for a conference sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy. "People think that the U.S. has many issues that for it are a priority, and they prefer to have stability in these countries more than democracy."

For the reformers, a big signal came this month in a speech Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered in Marrakech, Morocco. Clinton was attending a session of the Forum for the Future, a body the Bush administration established at the height of its pro-reform campaign. The idea was to foster a dialogue between Western and Arab countries about political and social reform that would resemble the Helsinki process between the West and the Soviet bloc during the 1970s.

Clinton began her speech by referring to Obama's call in Cairo for "a new beginning between the United States and Muslim communities around the world." She then said that after consulting with "local communities" the administration had "focused on three broad areas where we believe U.S. support can make a difference."

These turned out to be "entrepreneurship," "advancing science and technology" and education. As if citing the also-rans, Clinton added that "women's empowerment" was "a related priority" and that "the United States is committed to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East." The word "democracy" appeared nowhere in the speech, and there was no reference at all to the Arabs who are fighting to create independent newspapers, political parties or human rights organizations.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian who is one of the best-known Arab reformers, was part of a group who met Clinton after the speech. He told me that he tried to point out to her that "the next two years are crucial" for determining the political direction of the Middle East, in part because Egypt is approaching a major transition. Parliamentary elections are scheduled in 10 months, and their results will determine whether a presidential election scheduled for 2011 will be genuinely democratic. Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's 82-year-old ruler, is under pressure to retire; if he allows it, a truly competitive race to succeed him could pit his son Gamal against diplomatic heavyweights such as former foreign minister Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei, the outgoing head of the International Atomic Energy Agency -- not to mention Ayman Nour, who was imprisoned for three years after challenging Mubarak in 2005.

Clinton, said Ibrahim, replied that democracy promotion had always been a centerpiece of U.S. diplomacy and that the Obama administration would not give it up -- "but that they have a lot of other things on their plate." For Arab liberals, the translation is easy, if painful: Regardless of what the president may have said in Cairo, Obama's vision for the Middle East doesn't include "a new beginning" in the old political order.



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