Obama’s Middle East Speech Reflects Tension Between Words and Actions
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Obama’s speech on the Arab uprising was delayed, apparently because of late rewrites. And I think that’s apparent in the text, which is a real tightrope. There’s a tension to fit all of the past and present actions of the United States in that part of the world under one coherent theme. The President spoke of how “America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator,” and this is impossible to square with tacit support for dictators before this moment, and more importantly, during it. Here’s the section on Bahrain, which I’m glad the President included but which reflects this tension to the extreme. Bahrain, incidentally, wasn’t mentioned in the various call-outs to nations in the Arab world until this point in the speech:
Bahrain is a long-standing partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law. Nevertheless, we have insisted publically and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail. The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.
Indeed, one of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict. In Iraq, we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy. There, the Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence for a democratic process, even as they have taken full responsibility for their own security. Like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress. As they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.
The Iranian meddling is truly a red herring, a catch-all that the US brings out whenever it wants to push forward its interests in the region (see Iraq, Syria). The idea that the Bahraini government has a “legitimate interest in the rule of law” is frankly laughable. They’ve murdered and detained their own people, with a small ruling sect of Sunnis brutally repressing the majority Shiites. The model of Iraq is interesting, considering that the President elided any talk of actually leaving Iraq militarily and allowing that multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy to flourish on its own. This is among the first time the crisis in Bahrain has passed the lips of the President, and that’s a victory in and of itself, but the sentences are almost fighting each other here. And nothing is said of Saudi Arabia, where demonstrations also ended in violence, as well as the Saudi intervention in Bahrain to put down the uprising.
I think the focus on economic development for countries that have revolted against their dictators is a good one. As I said, it’s not quite a Marshall Plan for Tunisia and Egypt, but it will have an impact. And the incentives are moving in the right direction. But stated policies and goals butt up against the actions we see, and they become difficult to bring under one coherent thread.
Finally, there was the focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and here Obama stated clearly that the United States will reject the planned proposal for Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly.
For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist. As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums. But precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth: the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace. The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself. A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people – not just a few leaders – must believe peace is possible. The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.
So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, and a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.
This is an explicit endorsement of the 1967 borders, and it does tell Israel that they basically won’t have a Jewish state if they stick to intransigence. But the rejection of the UN General Assembly vote seems to me a missed opportunity to increase that pressure. A unified Palestinian state has little negotiating power other than international acceptance. They’ve been brutalized under occupation (and Obama used that word, too) for 44 years, and basic dignity demands that they seek a solution in an international venue if one cannot come from negotiation. The intention is not solely to embarrass the opposition, but to uplift themselves.
I’ve said all along that it’s concrete actions and not words that will govern the outcome here. And while this is a nice enough blueprint, I didn’t get the sense that the actions would change percipitously.
UPDATE: An accompanying fact sheet mentions US policy toward Jordan and Morocco, where there have been protests, but not Saudi Arabia, Oman or Algeria.
UPDATE: Matt Yglesias said this a lot more succinctly:
What the president just said about Bahrain was good. He called for dialogue, condemned violence against protestors, etc. But it was telling that in the opening laundry-list sections of the speech he said things like “whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran” and consistently left Manama off such lists. To me, it seems like a signal that while the administration doesn’t approve of the Bahraini government’s conduct but it also doesn’t intend to actually do anything about it.