This was the sort of split-the-difference address that the president is now famous for — long on Icarus-like soaring phraseology, very short on down-to-earth realities.
The first third of the president’s speech was a good summary of prior (dare we say it?) neoconservative analyses: Middle East autocracies blame Israel and the U.S., and often manipulate terrorism as a way to divert attention from their own failures to provide freedom and economic security to their people. Evidently, they are unwilling to address their societies’ endemic cultural, economic, and social problems: tribalism, religious intolerance, gender apartheid, statism, authoritarian government, and on and on. Yesterday, that was a neocon fantasy of Wolfowitz, Perle, and Bush; today, it is apparently part of a landmark new diplomacy. And yet, in this comprehensive speech on the Middle East, the word “Islam” was never mentioned.
Then, in the second third of his speech, Obama constructed a false narrative that his modest efforts over the last 27 months on the diplomatic front marked a watershed in the history of American policy. In truth, Obama embraced democratic reform only belatedly (recall his advice not to “meddle” when Iranians protested Iranian theocracy in the streets, or the characterization of the creepy Bashar Assad as a “reformer,” or Joe Biden’s assertion that Mubarak was not a dictator), a fact well known in the Middle East. It is curious that Iraq serves as a success in this new narrative, given Barack Obama’s five-year rhetorical assault on the effort — e.g., his demands to pull out all troops by March 2008 and declare the incipient surge that saved democracy a failure. And given the manifest historical fallacies and inaccuracies in the Cairo speech, was it wise for Obama to reference it as a sort of didactic example?
Obama expressed little concern about reports that many of the movements that threw out the illiberal pro-American autocracies are illiberal themselves — and he offered no explanation as to why Qaddafi deserved bombs and the other tyrants of the region, such as Assad, do not. European proximity and concern about future oil contracts? The omission was glaring in a speech touting the supposedly across-the-board new American idealism (e.g., “It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy”). Indeed, the most important country in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia — was not mentioned by Obama a single time. I think we know why, especially in the context of the new Saudi oil chill.
The president proposed giving new billions to some Middle East governments and jawboning others to pump more oil. Meanwhile, here at home — at a time of an annual $1.6 trillion deficit — he has not only failed to grant new drilling leases, but proclaimed that more drilling will not result in more oil. On still another note: As the flooding Mississippi destroys billions of dollars of U.S. property and ruins American lives, a broke U.S. is to give more money to Middle East governments that so far have been not shy about their disdain for America?
The Israeli–Palestinian issue is a black hole for any president, and Obama deserves empathy for thinking he can find a solution, despite the recent resignation of his special Middle East envoy. His statements were balanced enough, but few will see anything there reflective of the fact that Hamas, which is sworn to destroy Israel, is about to be a part of a Palestinian government — and thus will soon be an indirect recipient of U.S. aid. The president made predictions about what would happen “if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection” — but why the “if”?
Is there any reason to believe that another Israel pullout in the fashion of Lebanon and Gaza would bring results any different from the violence that followed those two withdrawals? The problem is not the 1967 border but the failure of the Palestinians to craft a stable, prosperous constitutional government, and then negotiate about borders later.
The president’s last paragraph about freedom as a universal value in the context of the Middle East was almost a verbatim synopsis of George W. Bush’s constant orations — and yet the president can rest assured that his democracy promotion will be praised by the media as idealistic and needed as much as Bush’s identical prose was damned as naïve and irrelevant.
In short, like the Cairo speech, this Middle East address will soon be as much forgotten by most observers as it is referenced by Obama himself.