Barack Obama. Credit:  <a href="" target=_blank">Barak Obama's Photostream </a>
Barack Obama. Credit: Barak Obama's Photostream

President Obama's Middle East Speech: Actions Speak Louder than Words

May 21, 2011

If there is one thing President Obama can be counted on to do, it's to give a good speech. His much-anticipated speech on the Middle East at the State Department did not disappoint. Once again, the President displayed his oratorical skills and his ability to present a compelling narrative. His discussion of the Arab spring, beginning with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian market vendor, to the current brutal crackdown now happening in Syria demonstrated a clear grasp of the underlying forces behind this momentous change in Middle East politics.

Obama mentioned the word "dignity" six times in his speech, recognizing that the desire for dignity has been a driving force of the Arab spring. He also acknowledged the political repression, corruption, and lack of economic opportunities that have frustrated and angered people in the region for so long, although he did not acknowledge that for decades U.S. foreign policy towards the region has contributed to these ills through its support for autocratic, unaccountable governments (something that Middle Easterners themselves are not likely to forget anytime soon).

Above all, President Obama pledged U.S. support for political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa. In doing so, he sought to align the United States with the collective aspirations of the peoples of the region. Instead of just supporting the leaders of the region as it has done in the past, President Obama is now committing the United States to support the people of the region.

The problem, of course, arises when the desires of the region's leaders are at odds with those of their populations. To take the most obvious example, in Bahrain the interests of the Sunni regime conflict with the interests of the mostly Shiite population. Can the dialogue between the regime and the opposition in Bahrain that President Obama called for really resolve this conflict of interests? If it doesn't, then whose side does the United States take—a regime that has long been an ally of the U.S. and hosts the Navy's fifth fleet or a Shiite population that could fall under the influence of Iran?

For all President Obama's rhetorical embrace of the Arab spring, in practice the United States will continue to put its own interests ahead of those of the Arab masses as it has always done. President Obama himself recognized in this speech that "there will be times when our short-term interests don't align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region." The tension between American interests and values—so long a feature of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East—will not be resolved in a single speech. It will persist as long as the United States allies itself with states led by people who do not share American values (such as Saudi Arabia), and as long as the United States fears the instability and chaos that steadfastly upholding American values might lead to (such as in Syria).

Ultimately, it will be President Obama's actions, not his words, that will determine whether the United States will be seen as truly supporting the Arab Spring or not. So far at least, the Obama Administration's actual record has been decidedly mixed.

Actions rather than words will also decide what happens in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how the U.S. role in it will be perceived. President Obama's remarks in his speech about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it should be resolved immediately sparked controversy and debate.

While some bemoaned the President's timidity and argued that he didn't go far enough in outlining his views about what a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should look like (he skirted around the most difficult issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees), others assailed the President for allegedly abandoning Israel and siding with the Palestinians (all because he publicly stated what everyone has long known—that the borders of a future Palestinian state should be based upon the 1967 'Green Line' with mutually agreed land swaps).

This reaction was entirely predictable. Presidential statements about Israeli-Palestinian issues are always subject to intense scrutiny. Experts parse the meaning of every word and phrase, and pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups fire off press statements praising and denouncing these utterances.

But what difference do these statements really make? For decades, American presidents have been making speeches about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and all the while the conflict drags on and on. Successive presidents have called for an end to Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories and a two-state solution to the conflict, yet the occupation itself has become more deeply entrenched and a two-state solution appears more distant with each passing day. Speeches cannot change this reality, only actions can.

President Obama did not propose any new actions. In particular, he did not try to re-launch the peace process, which has been stalled for most of his term in office. Given the dim prospects for success of the peace process at the present time, this is completely understandable. Nevertheless, if President Obama truly believes that the wave of change that has swept across the Arab world over the past six months necessitates a renewed effort at Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking (as opposed to the Israeli government's view that this revolutionary change makes peacemaking too risky right now), he must do a lot more to bring this about.

To be sure, this is politically risky, especially as the 2012 presidential election nears, but the risks of inaction are also significant. In September, the Palestinian leadership will seek UN recognition of a Palestinian state, with potentially dangerous consequences, and Palestinians in the territories and in surrounding states are likely to escalate the non-violent, mass protests of the kind that recently took place on Israel's borders.

President Obama's speech will not avert these risks. Only strong American actions can potentially do that. If this doesn't happen, then a deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian relations and a resurgence of violence will obliterate whatever prospects there are for an improved relationship between the United States and the Arab world.

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