In his Middle East speech today, addressing the political changes sweeping the region, President Obama said, “The question for us is: What role will America play?” Although he declared that he will approach that question with “humility,” and although he noted that “it is not America that put people into the streets of Tunis and Cairo,” the president’s address, and the remarks of Hillary Clinton before him, indicate clearly that the Obama administration has yet come to grips with the fact that the Middle East is no longer a region in which the United States is playing the central role.
The Middle East that President Obama addressed today is rapidly spinning out of the American orbit. With the possible exception of Jordan’s King Abdullah, a docile monarch, none of the other leaders in the region pay much attention to what the United States wants or needs. Not only do they not respond to American diktat, they barely listen when the United States begs, pleads, and cajoles them.
Consider the roster: Pakistan openly defies the United States, and its leaders recently visited Afghanistan to urge Kabul to break with Washington and join a new alignment with Pakistan and China. Afghanistan’s government, though dependent on US support, flouts US demands with impunity, and President Karzai has openly accused the United States of trying to dominate Central Asia. Iran, despite onerous sanctions and repeated threats of US military action, has not only refused to compromise over its nuclear program, but Tehran is supporting anti-American movements in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and the Gulf states. Iraq, whose very government is the creation of the US invasion in 2003, has all but shut the door on a continued US military presence there, and its leadership touts its new alliance with Iran. Saudi Arabia, where anti-American sentiment has been growing for a decade, is seething over US policy in the region, and Riyadh is reaching out to Beijing, Moscow, and other powers, despite its overwhelming dependence on weapons and security assistance from Washington. Israel, under Bibi Netanyahu, gleefully defies American pressure to halt its expansion into the occupied West Bank. The Palestinian National Authority, under President Abbas, has all but broken with the United States by forging a deal with Hamas and by short-circuiting the US-led peace process and going to the United Nations for ratification of its statehood. And the new, emerging governments of Egypt and Tunisia owe nothing to the United States. Egypt, in particular, is reaching out to Iran.
Yet, in introducing Obama at the State Department, Secretary of State Clinton said, “America’s leadership is more essential than ever,” and she stressed the “indispensable role our country can and must play.” Unfortunately, Obama continued that theme.
To be sure, Obama acknowledged that the protests that are sweeping the region could unleash a form of populism that could strengthen the Arab world’s resolve to confront Israel’s expansionism and to demand that Israel, and its supporters in the United States, take the necessary steps to settle the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. As Obama put it: A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people—not just a few leaders—must believe peace is possible.” Though he wasn’t being explicit, Obama was using that message as a warning to Israel that, as he said, “The status quo is unsustainable.” Certainly, in Palestine, Egypt, and elsewhere, democratic change and elections will catapult into power people and political forces who, unlike deposed President Mubarak in Egypt, won’t so easily tolerate Israel’s refusal to live within the borders of 1967. Unfortunately, although Obama outlined, in his speech, his rough vision for what a settlement might look like, and although he said that he disagrees with the notion that the peace process is dead, he failed to provide any path from here to there. (By all accounts, his refusal to put forward an American plan for Middle East peace was in deference to the influence of Dennis Ross, the principal White House Middle East adviser, over the wishes of the State Department and, presumably, the Defense Department, too.) And Obama put most of the onus for a deal on the Palestinians, saying that the recent Fatah-Hamas accord had complicated matters and that it was the Palestinians, not Israel, that has to get its house in order first. Not only that, but he disparaged the Palestinian plan to go to the United Nations in September to win its endorsement of an independent state, an action that Obama called “symbolic,” and he warned that “we will stand against attempts to single [Israel] out for criticism in international forums.”
In his litany of praise for democratic change in the region, Obama did not mention democracy in Palestine, where voters in a free election voted for Hamas, and although he did not call Hamas a “terrorist” group, he pointedly refrained from suggesting that the United States might open a dialogue with them.
In discussing the outbreak of popular revolts, Obama said—perhaps in a sideways slap at the US intelligence community—that the Arab spring “should not have come as a surprise.” (No doubt, it was a surprise to the White House.) He praised the fact that a “new generation has emerged,” tech savvy and aware. And, usefully, he acknowledged that the people of region mistrust the United States, given decades of history in which the United States has supported forces of reaction and viewed the region as a big oil well that needs American protection.
Yet Obama tried to fit a bunch of square pegs into round holes, lumping Egypt and Tunisia (allies whose leaders were toppled), Libya, Syria and Iran (adversaries where leaders have used violence against rebels), and Yemen and Bahrain (where allied authoritarian leaders have used force against demands for regime change). Yet the US approach in all of these situations has not fit nicely into a pattern. Though Obama spoke of an overarching principle (“It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region”), no overarching principle is evident, so far at least. The United States was slow to throw its support behind Egyptian rebels, yet quick to slap sanctions on Syria’s government, though hundreds of protesters were killed in both places. Quick to intervene militarily in Libya, in support of rebels there, Obama has so far backed the government of Bahrain that used military force to crush a rebellion by majority Shia. Nothing in Obama’s speech clarified these gaps, which are hypocritical at best and, at worst, just the same old application of cold, calculating national interest foreign policy that has guided US policy in the region since the Cold War.
At the start of his speech, Obama tried to put US policy in the framework of shift. He is, he said, winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, with the killing of Osama bin Laden, the threat from Al Qaeda has received a “huge blow.” Perhaps he wants credit in the region for unwinding the Bush administration reckless policy, which declared war on a mythical alliance that included Al Qaeda, Iraq, the Taliban, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. But unless he takes far stronger steps, in July, to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, unless he acts more forcefully to draw down the US military presence in the Persian Gulf and in vast arms sales to the region, and unless he drags Israel kicking and screaming to the bargaining table, his speech will have been for naught. And the democratic movement in the Middle East, meanwhile, will hum along happily without him.