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May 20, 2011

Obama's Strange Middle East Speech
Posted by Michael Cohen

So as a former speechwriter, foreign policy/political analyst and occasional blogger I suppose I have to say something about Obama's big Middle East speech yesterday . . . but truth be told I'm a bit stumped.

It was a fine speech, but hardly a major one. There was some tough rhetoric on Bahrain and it was nice to see the President associate the United States more directly with the democratic revolts unfolding in the Arab world and to pledge acceptance of countries and movements that we disagree with but who at least accept "genuine and inclusive democracy." We'll see how that works out in practice, but I suppose it's good that Obama said it.*

And of course no Middle East speech would be complete without a misguided overreaction to comments related to Israel or efforts by discredited and desperate neo-cons like Charles Krauthammer to claim that any rhetorical support for democracy in the Arab world is vindication of George Bush's Freedom Agenda. The less said about these two ludicrous and pointless arguments the better.

But in general, I'm a bit mystified by the whole thing. As near I can tell there was no significant policy shift or announcement. Generally, the President doesn't give major foreign policy speeches unless he has something new or important to say. There was little of that in this address (reiterating rhetorical support for democracy is not a policy shift) - and little sense that the US would suddenly become more diplomatically and politically engaged in the region's most pressing issues. So what exactly was the point? 

It seems to follow a White House pattern of viewing major speeches on the Middle East as a way of changing perceptions of the United States in the region. This view seems to be based on two flawed assumptions 1) that words rather than actions shift public opinion in the Arab world and 2) that changing Arab public opinion about the United States has any real impact on US national security interests.

To the first point, the President gave a major speech on the Middle East in the Spring of 2009. It was a well-received address, but the follow-up was tepid and didn't challenge in any serious way the real impediments to how the US is viewed in the Arab world, namely its support for Israel and un-democratic regimes across the region - or more important the actual impediments to reform. Indeed since May 2009 the peace process with Israel has further floundered and when the Arab Spring emerged the US was caught completely flat-footed. The result is that the US is once again seen in a negative light in the region. 

But it was a nice speech.

Today, if the United States is serious about shifting how the US is viewed in the Arab world there is really only one way to accomplish this goal - putting actual pressure on Israel or involving the US more directly in political negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. That's the only issue that would really move the needle in a serious way, because US pressure might actually have an impact. But I have no sense that either of these things are going to happen so all these efforts to shift perceptions of the US probably aren't going to amount to much. 

Indeed, I think David Ignatius captures the dilemma well, "Each thread of his “dignity” agenda for the Middle East requires something that has been in short supply at this White House: a systematic ability to implement foreign policy strategy through committed, emphatic follow-up actions. It’s this operational question — not the rhetorical framework — that will be the crux."

Precisely. You really do get the sense sometimes that the Administration thinks the rhetorical framework is as, if not more important than the operational question. But the simple fact is without effective follow-up Obama might as well have not given this speech. Simply mouthing US support for reform in the region and offering some relatively minor helping hands to emerging democrats doesn't do much of anything to further US interests.

Part of the problem here is that this Administration seems to operate under the notion that improving the US image in the Arab world is of vital concern to US national security interests. This has become one of those untested DC national security assumptions - but to be honest I don't fully understand it. Obviously, it's nice if people around the world have a good image of the United States and it can have a positive impact, along the margins, of bilateral relations but ultimately perceived interests will generally trump public opinion. Ultimately, we should be supporting democratic reform because we perceive it to be in our interests that more countries live under free and democratic rule (a defensible and compelling point) . . . but because people will like us better? Meh. 

As a foreign policy interest or a counter-terrorism strategy, public opinion is, well, of marginal importance and pretty hard to affect in any serious way. And if you do believe this is an important goal there are surely better ways to go about than fancy words without much in the way of follow-through.


*(There were also one decidedly odd turn in the speech worth mentioning; the part here Obama said, "one of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict" and then talked about how Iraq had turned a corner into a multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian conflict. That's a bit like arguing that the United States had moved away from regional and racial divides . . . in 1875. I mean there was this bloody, horrible civil war in Iraq, so it's not quite accurate to use Iraq as an example of turning the sectarian other cheek.)


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Wasn't expecting much and thus wasn't surprised by another vague overview of the Middle East. Although Obama spoke as though his administration has fully supported protest movements from the beginning, this speech was a defensive reaction to negative impressions of U.S. policy. Particularly weak statement on Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, which isn't playing well in Yemen's streets.

Agree that the Obama administration over-relies on rhetoric to correct policy errors. Rather than get into the daily grind of implementing policy, Obama hoped to sweep away current mistakes in one stroke. That's not how foreign policy works, especially at a time like now.

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