The Obama speech: Why did he bother?

The Big Speech was rather a non-event from the perspective of most people in the region, I reckon. Obama and his administration were behind the curve when the uprisings broke out. The uprisings were troubling for them because 1. (like the Iranian Revolution in 1979) they didn’t see it coming 2. the uprisings were an entirely local affair, trumping the assumption for years that democracy would only come from outside via war (like Iraq) or US pressure (post-Iraq war Bush years until Hamas won Palestinian elections) 3. as such, the uprisings have been outside US control and have the potential produce outcomes that challenge US policy in the region. That policy is pretty straightforward in its general outlines: make the Arabs and Iran accept Israel and peace with Israel on Israeli terms, challenge Iran and other forces opposed to the terms of the Pax Americana, and ensure that oil fields in Iraq and the Gulf stay in friendly hands.

When Obama spoke in 2009 he chose to address Muslim countries directly and Cairo University was the location for it. The promises were big, notably on working to set up a Palestinian state. At that time, he didn’t say specifically its borders would be those before the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, but he threw that requirement or expectation in among the smorgasbord of carrots and sticks, criticism and pat-on-the backs that was meant to be balanced out between both parties in this speech last night. Since the Cairo speech he has been unable to stop Israel building and expanding settlements in two of those territories, East Jerusalem and the West Bank. That failure plus the fact that ordinary Arabs trumped American assumptions that democracy and rights for the Arabs required American tutelage (or that al-Qa’ida’s call to violence was the only way to remove tyrants) – all that led collectively to not much interest among ordinary people here in what Obama had to say. Yet, it’s not clear that Obama was particularly concerned himself about what ordinary people think, since he chose this time to address State Department diplomats and officials at their HQ in Washington. This speech was aimed at Americans, certain Arab governments and Israel.

Which is not to say that America has become irrelevant or that its help is not sought. Bahraini demonstrators would have been thrilled had Washington done more publicly to support their cause and they got what they wanted to hear at least last night. They could take solace before in the fact that Obama in reality did not very much to force Mubarak out, if anything – despite the Saudi anger at Mubarak’s fall. Obama’s efforts, and his appointment of a special envoy during the unrest, were about how to save Mubarak until elections in September or maintain his intelligence clone Omar Suleiman in power until then. It was the efforts of Egyptians alone that forced the military rulers to kick Mubarak and Suleiman out. So Obama’s words last night on Bahrain were for sure welcomed by activists.

“President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power,” he said, turning to his ally in Yemen before swiftly moving on with “and that’s true today in Bahrain,” Obama said. He raised his voice there because he was entering some controversy by suggesting the United States should not allow the country that hosts its Fifth Fleet to squash a mass protest movement. He went on: “Bahrain is a long-standing partner and we are committed to its security. We recoginse Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there… We have insisted publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahraini citizens… Such steps will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in dialogue and you can’t engage in dialogue when the peaceful opposition are in jail [applause]. The government must create the conditions for dialogue and the opposition must participate to create a just future for all Bahrainis.” 

This criticism of a friendly government sounded apologetic – acknowledging Manama’s arguments that Iran is meddling, that the protests were not entirely peaceful and that the opposition are not serious about dialogue – but it was one of the few new or standout elements in the speech. On Saudi Arabia – leader of the Arab counter-revolution, with troops in Bahrain, offering financial help to Bahrain and Oman, pushing Qatar to stop Al-Jazeera covering Bahrain unrest, suggesting Jordan and Morocco can join the GCC, focussing attention on solely Libya and Syria through its pan-Arab TV channel Al-Arabiya – Obama had not a word to say. Instead he offered distant hints: “Universal rights apply to women as well as men,” he said to applause, which was clearly directed at Riyadh’s sinister promotion of a Sunni Islam that demeans women. “The region will never reach its full potential when more than half the region is prevented from reaching their full potential.” And, as with Bahrain, he adopted regime apologetics: “Each country is different…  Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy.” Al Saud and its hangers-on love that: since they are “different”, the entire country is akin to the Vatican for Catholics, etc. etc.. On Syria, he stated quite clearly that he is prepared to work with Assad and his regime, despite everything (“Assad has a choice: he can lead transition or get out of the way”). He said nothing about Morocco, though his State Department issued a statement the same day acknowledging protesters have demands and praising the king for promising reforms.

Now we come to Palestine. Obama essentially adopts the views of the Zionist Left with some concessions to the fears of the Right. He talked more about Israel’s security than he did of human – Palestinian humans – rights. He talked of a resolution of the conflict with the creation of a Palestinian state – which in his graciousness may be allowed to include contiguous territory with borders resembling the lines of 1967 – as if it was an Israeli imperative to ensure the continuity of the political entity with a Jewish majority. “Efforts to delegitimise Israeli will end in failure,” he said, using phraseology that comes in Israeli talking points (as does the idea that “antagonism to Israel” was the only freedom of speech allowed by Arab regimes – since Oslo in 1993 and more so after the 9/11 attacks put Arab governments on the defensive, attacking Israel has become unfashionable in state media in many countries, especially in the Gulf). It was bandied about alot during and after the Gaza War in 2008/9 when Israel saw efforts to treat it as some kind of pariah state at the United Nations, with ministers and generals avoiding travel to some countries for fear of arrest and prosecution. It also speaks to Israeli fear of the argument that the idea of two states has passed its sell-by date and its time for Israel to extend full rights to all citizens living in historical Palestine. “A growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself… The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occuaption,” Obama said. The state of Palestine will be the homeland for the Palestinian people, he added. How long before he publicly endorses the Israeli demand that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israeli as a specifically Jewish state, despite the Palestinians who form 50 percent of the population in the northern part of the country? 

Obama angered the Israeli government by mentioning the 1967 borders and held out the possibility of dealing with a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas. But when he cited two examples of the kind of pain that failed peace has brought to both sides, it was Israelis being blown up on buses but for Palestinians the “humiliation” of occupation without a state of their own. Yet thousands of Palestinians have died since 2000, if we take the last uprising as a cut-off point. “Humiliation”, and death, can easily continue under a Palestinian state entity as Obama and some Israelis envisage. He made no mention at all of the 13 people Israel shot dead last Sunday when Palestinian refugees protested at border points in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon. Indeed, Palestinians are excluded from the “Arab Spring” narrative of self-determination through mass action and peaceful protest; their fight for rights and justice is instead subsumed under the rubric of a “peace process” whose aim is to help ensure the survival of a Jewish majority state in Palestine (against rising odds).  

The talk of economic aid really spoke very clearly to the American-Israeli fear of the shift the “Spring” could make. Egypt has opened channels to Iran, ended its tight Israel-friendly border closure at Gaza, brokered a deal that allows the Islamist movement running Gaza into government with Fatah in Ramallah. It is prosecuting officials for the corruption involved in selling cut-price gas to Israel. The Gulf countries are livid at the treatment of Mubarak, who could stand trial for corruption and illegally gained wealth, and trying to limit Egypt’s policy changes. American aid money did nothing for democracy in Egypt; it encouraged corruption and helped entrench Mubarak’s rule, but the regime – not least the military – craved the money and was prepared to make sure it followed US-friendly foreign policies in order to keep getting it. Thus we heard Obama: “The G8 summit will discuss stabilizing and modernizing the economies of Egypt and Tunisia. We are urging other countries to help Egypt and Tunisia to meet near-term financial needs. We not want democratic Egypt to be saddled by the debts of its past. We will relieve Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt… We will help Egypt regain access to markets. We will help newly-democratic governments recover assets that were stolen.”

When Arabs take their fate into their own hands it is a threat to American policy. This speech was an attempt to set out guidelines for what America expects of its Arab allies in handling mass democracy movements and of democracy activists and opposition groups should they succeed in coming to power.   

Some translations:

“We will keep commitments to friends and partners” – Obama will not back calls to remove rulers such as Al Khalifa, or Al Saud

“Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy” – US accepts Saudi arguments that global understanding of democracy is un-Islamic, against Arab traditions and will bring unsavoury types to power

“Responsible regional leadership” – New Egyptian and Tunisian governments should adhere to US guidelines on Israel and Iran 

“We will oppose attempts by any group to restrict the rights of others” – US will accept Brotherhood or Ennahda rule in Egypt and Tunisia but keep a close eye on their domestic as well as foreign policies

“Universal rights apply to women as well as men” – Saudi Arabia is allowed to ditch democracy if it agrees to give women more freedom

“We do not want democratic Egypt to be saddled by the debts of its past” – US will aid Egypt as a bribe to keep its foreign policy on message

“As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in history and shared values. Our commitment to Israeli security is unshakeable” – Palestinian political, civil and human rights will remain subordinate to the project to maintain a Jewish majority state in Palestine

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *