In his second major address to the Muslim world since the infamous Cairo speech two years prior, President Barack Obama attempted to speak directly to tens of millions of Arabs clamoring for a change in their political systems. For the 44th president, major speeches in front of a world audience are seen as an opportune time for the United States to increase its exposure and educate the public, both on how Americans feel and what American policymakers are planning to do. In this context, Obama’s speech Thursday at the State Department did not disappointment.
Despite arguments from critics who downplayed the president’s address as another useless political exercise, Obama’s words did in fact outline a clear American position on the “Arab Spring” democracy movement engulfing the Middle East today. If the president’s remarks are any guide, the United States are unequivocally on the side of the protesters in their struggle for civil rights, political liberties and economic freedom. How that rhetoric will be seized by Arabs who are actually taking to the streets is another question — they have long been frustrated by American policies in the region, which have bordered on hypocrisy on many crucial issues, from nuclear proliferation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A single speech will not change that outlook overnight, yet Obama’s comments nevertheless attempt to parallel America’s interests with its values.
One of the more surprising aspects of the address focused on Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who continues to indiscriminately arrest Syrian democracy activists while ordering his security services to fire on demonstrators across the country. American policy throughout the Syrian uprising has been relatively tame when compared to Washington’s response to the situation in Libya. There is a dependency on some lawmakers to look at Assad as a potential reformer surrounded by a sea of bad apples. The White House, in contrast to its intervention in Libya, is still largely following a cautious script toward the Syrian government, whose downfall could very well result in sectarian violence or a civil war. The president’s declaration that Assad should either start reforming or “get out of the way” is a clear indication that his administration is starting to lose patience though.
Bahrain, an American ally that houses the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, was also hit hard in the speech. Without mentioning the Al Khalifa monarchy by name, the president signaled his outright displeasure over the regime’s suppression of peaceful demonstrators, as well as the Bahraini government’s destruction of Shia mosques. Specifically, Obama and his staff urged Bahrain to show goodwill toward its citizens by offering a genuine round of political negotiations. The American response, however, would most likely be limited to official denouncements should King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa refuse to negotiate.
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the president stated for the first time in public that a Palestinian state must exist within the confines of pre-1967 borders. In other words, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem should be included in a potential settlement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly disagreed with Obama’s approach while Republican leaders followed suit by claiming that the administration had thrown Israel “under the bus.” The president tried to paint a rosier picture of his Israel-Palestine policy at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee Conference two days later, assuring American Jewish leaders that the United States will stand by Israel in multilateral forums — suggesting that Obama opposes the Palestinian strategy of seeking recognition of statehood at the United Nations General Assembly later this year.
Saudi Arabia was notably absent from the address, which is particularly odd given Riyadh’s importance to American interests in the region. The Saudis have been nervous with the Arab Spring in general, sending troops into Bahrain to quell democracy protests there and expanding Gulf Cooperation Council membership in order to consolidate its authority. The American-Saudi relationship is tense at the moment and soured when Washington withdraw its support for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Saudi king Abdullah was so outraged over what he perceived as the administration abandoning a critical regional ally that he twice refused to meet with senior American officials. For a king that is often tempered, pragmatic and reform-oriented (at least in Saudi terms), a snub by Saudi Arabia’s most powerful man is something that should be taken very seriously.
The speech was vital for America’s public relations efforts. The people of the Middle East have long viewed the United States in negative terms. Communicating with the Arab people, setting the record straight on American policy and supporting Arab aspirations is therefore pivotal to the president’s Middle East policy. Now, he must turn his words into action.