Politics & Policy

Obama the Convert

Where does President Bush go to get his apology?

In his Middle East speech yesterday, President Obama sounded less like himself of old and much more like the predecessor he once condemned. Obama’s general declarations — on universal human rights, the convergence of U.S. interests and democracy promotion, dictators’ ploys to distract their subjects with colonial-era resentments and Israeli bogeymen — made him sound like a convert to W.’s freedom agenda. So did his remarks on Iran, whose “intolerance” and “hypocrisy” he condemned, and whose democrats he honored (two years too late). He even had warm words for Iraq’s nascent democracy.

In typical Obama style, though, he didn’t acknowledge Bush’s contribution or his own change. He seemed rather to suggest that he is the one who reoriented American policy toward the region’s reformers. “Already,” he pronounced at the outset, “we have done much to shift our foreign policy following a decade defined by two costly conflicts.” In his telling, America’s move toward democracy promotion began with his Cairo speech, which dealt with the topic almost in passing. 

He spent much of the speech relating the recent events of the “Arab Spring,” and skipped over its less pleasant elements — anti-Israeli provocations, a threat of Islamist dominance in Egypt and elsewhere, the fraught question of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Bahrain. Obama kept it vague and anodyne. But it was welcome to hear him say that “democracy depends not only on elections, but also strong and accountable institutions, and respect for the rights of minorities”; invoke the importance of a vibrant market economy to reform in these countries; and speak up for the right of Coptic Christians to worship freely in Cairo.

He tried to muster a muscular condemnation of Syria, but couldn’t quite manage it. “President Assad,” he said, “now has a choice: He can lead that transition [to democracy], or get out of the way.” Really? The Obama administration along with the rest of the liberal foreign-policy establishment has long hoped Assad would make a reliable negotiating partner for Israel and prove himself a domestic “reformer.” Those hopes have all been dashed as the tanks have rolled. Assad can’t and won’t lead Syria to democracy. We have been and remain baffled by Obama’s reticence toward the dictator who has orchestrated arguably the worst anti-democratic crackdown of the Arab Spring, and who remains a toady of our worst enemy in the region.  

Finally, and inevitably, Obama’s speech rounded back to the Jewish state. In explicitly announcing support for a two-state solution based on the so-called 1967 lines, Obama went further than any prior U.S. president. He subtly shifted America’s position in the Palestinians’ direction and away from assurances that President Bush had made to the Israelis in 2004 that they wouldn’t be made to trade away major settlements. The Israelis understandably reacted with dismay. 

Regardless, the chances of any negotiation’s succeeding now are remote. President Obama hit on the chief reason in a pregnant line about Israel’s relationship with Hamas: “How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?” You can’t. If President Obama would follow through on the logic of his own rhetorical question he’d save himself and our closest ally in the region much unnecessary grief.


The Latest