So, how was it for you?
It was a “powerful” speech and a “profound advance” for U.S. policy towards the region, writes writes Rami G. Khouri, Director of the Beirut-based Issam Fares Institute.
By using the phrase “self-determination,” Obama made clear that he respected local ownership and that this was a home-grown revolution:
Obama was also in a peculiar position of responding to the initiative that millions of ordinary Arabs had taken in launching citizen revolts against half a dozen Arab governments. No longer was the United States pointing the way, but rather it was following, and trying to catch up to, the lead taken by Arab men and women across the region who have defined the new ground rules of citizenship, statehood, power and governance. Free Arabs in recent months were setting the stage for a confused America.
His stress on the universality of freedom and democracy affirmed that these were rights “that should be enjoyed by Bahrainis who are strategically close to the United States as well as by Libyans and Syrians who are not.”
Obama was indeed trying to catch up, says Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy. The speech seemed designed to educate a domestic audience rather than address the Arab world and some issues were “glaringly missing,” including “the most glaring omission of all….the country that is the worst offender and the strongest counter-revolutionary force………”:
President Obama mentioned Iran as a potential threat in Bahrain. But remember, Saudi Arabia has actual troops on the ground in Bahrain. And when it comes to religious freedom and women’s rights, which the president mentioned — and I praise him for that — Saudi Arabia again is the worst offender, especially when it comes to its Shia minority and women’s rights.
A representative of the region’s largest Islamist group dismissed Obama’s declaration.
“The speech he gave in Cairo evaporated after two weeks; this speech will evaporate in a few minutes,” said Essam el-Erian, a prominent ‘reformist’ in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. “And the message it carries to the nations of this region is basically this: Do not wait to get any support from the White House; maintain your efforts and achieve your freedom.”
“He still considers Bahrain an ally and what he said about Syria was sad because the Syrian people are now convinced that there can be no reform after 1,000 martyrs,” he said.
But Bahrain’s main opposition party, Al Wefaq, welcomed the speech and expressed the hope that Obama would continue “to speak out when he sees repression by U.S. allies of democracy seekers.”
Another regional analyst found the speech a “disappointing… ..rehash” of earlier statements.
“It was passable but nothing new or surprising. No creative policy options,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.
“The president spoke well about how we view democracy—including not only majority rule but minority rights and the rule of law,” said Elliott Abrams, former National Security Adviser to President George W. Bush.
But he takes exception to what he sees as Obama’s claim to have consistently supported the Arab Spring.
“This is simply not true. The by-word early in his administration was “engagement,” with a caustic rejection of the Bush “Freedom Agenda,” — writes Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Bush’s tougher policies toward Iran and Syria were to be replaced by outreach, discussion, diplomacy – far more civilized. And that engagement was with the rulers, not the ruled; Obama’s was a world of states, and you engaged with the people ruling them.”
Abrams is dismissive of Obama’s suggestion that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad might lead a transition to democracy.
But, even though the speech was a repudiation of a realist agenda, Obama still needs to cater to regional allies, says Jon Alterman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which is why the West intervened in Libya, but not Syria.
Syria’s adjoining states want “evolution rather than revolution” whereas Libya’s neighbors “would very much like to see Muammar Gaddafi gone,” he said.
Obama’s speech “did a great service in sketching out a new paradigm for U.S. engagement with the Middle East…..in which he raised the goal of reform and democracy to a top-tier U.S. interest,” writes Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But by conflating the Arab spring with a new approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace creates “the very distraction from the focus on democratic reform the president said he wanted to avoid.”
“We must help them recover from the disruptions of their democratic upheaval, and support the governments that will be elected later this year,” he said. “And we are urging other countries to help Egypt and Tunisia meet its near-term financial needs.”
The European Union welcomed Obama ‘s proposal for a joint approach to promoting democracy in North Africa and the Middle East, said EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
“His ideas and objectives find a clear echo in the work the EU is doing, including the partnership for democracy and shared prosperity,” she said: “There is a lot to gain from the EU and the US joining forces in our common agenda to promote reform and support transitions to democracy.”
Others suggested that Obama tried to please too many conflicting interests and ended up satisfying none.
“It was almost an impossible balancing act designed to placate an enormous array of people — Americans who saw him as indecisive in the face of the Arab Spring, Arabs in the region, protesters in the Middle East,” said Shashank Joshi at the London-based Royal United Services Institute. “It took on too much and will end up disappointing absolutely everyone.”
The speech was addressed to both domestic and international audiences, others suggested, inevitably so.
“The Arab Spring, as we call it, is changing the region and he wants to make sure that people in the region know and that the American people know, that the United States supports the changes that are occurring in the region,” said the Middle East Institute’s Graeme Bannerman.
“After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be,” President Obama announced, declaring that “it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy:”
Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe — because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo.
Obama’s speech “lived up to its billing,” writes foreign policy maven Walter Russell Mead, who welcomes the paradigm shift from the ‘realism’ of Obama’s first two years in office:
The realist course of cooperating with oppressive regimes in a quest for international calm is a dead end. It breeds toxic resentment against the United States; it stores up fuel for an inevitable conflagration when the oppressors weaken; it stokes anti-Israel resentment when hatred of Israel becomes the only form of political activism open to ordinary people; it strengthens the hold of extremist religion and strangles the growth of liberal forces.
The characterization of Iran as an “oppressive, tyrannical regime,” the highlighting of Iraq “as an example of democracy and pluralism” that can help transform the region, and the embrace of opposition groups operating in friendly states are all consistent with “the Anglo-American revolutionary tradition,” he contends:
Open societies, open economies, religious freedom, minority rights: these are revolutionary ideas in much of the world. Americans have often been globally isolated as we stand for the rights of ordinary people (like immigrant African chambermaids in New York hotels) against the privilege of elites. A faith in the capacity of the common woman and the common man to make good decisions (and in their right to make those decisions even if they are sometimes wrong) is the basis of America’s political faith; President Obama proclaimed today that this needs to be the basis of our policy in the Middle East.
The speech was a welcome indication that the U.S. has recovered its confidence, said the Henry Jackson Society, the transatlantic project for democratic geopolitics.
Obama has clearly learned that the world’s dictators do not respond to olive-branches and soaring rhetoric in the way that ecstatic crowds in democratic countries do. They just take advantage.
The significance of the economic assistance package should not be understated, according to an analyst of earlier democratic transitions, but it needs to be delivered quickly.
“What is the difference between Poland and Russia?” said economist Anders Aslund. “It is that the West helped Poland immediately and the West did not help Russia. Therefore the reformers could carry out their program while in Russia they were blocked because they did not have the outside support.”