Obama’s Middle East Speech: a Significant Step Forward but a Long Way to Go

Speaking to the Muslim world Thursday, President Barack Obama faced a much more skeptical audience, disappointed with his seeming inability to deliver on his Cairo speech and agenda. His credibility required more than rhetoric and culturally sensitive language -- a new approach to American foreign policy.
Without directly stating the failure of the conventional framework of US and EU Middle East policy (equating protection of national interests with stability and security of authoritarian regimes), Obama shifted to a new narrative and framework: the pursuit of our national interests within America’s principles of self-determination, democracy and human rights.
Obama took a strong stand in support for democratic change, noting that this policy would be the same for friends and foes alike, that attempts to wield power by coercion rather than consent cannot be tolerated. In that context, he spoke to uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. However, while he supported peaceful or non-violent democratic change and criticized government repression, his call for Bashar Assad to step aside if he continued to resist change was not matched in dealing with Bahrain’s ruling family, which has been brutal in its repression of its democracy movement and suppression of its Shiah majority, or with the continued violence in Yemen. A challenge for the administration, overlooked in his speech, is the issue of reform in Saudi Arabia and some GCC states’ and their military support for the Al Khalifa family in Bahrain despite its failure to implement reforms.
The president scored points by committing to listen to and assist civil society groups and announcing major US support for economic development. As the Gallup World Poll and a recent Pew poll have reported, economic, technological and educational assistance are greatly valued and desired in many Muslim countries and will be critical to emerging democracies.
Not surprisingly, Obama’s discussion of the Palestine-Israel conflict and peace process was more disappointing to both Palestinians and the Israeli government. As in his Cairo speech, he acknowledged the security concerns of Israelis and Palestinian suffering and humiliation under an untenable occupation. Obama did, to the surprise of many and rejection by Netanyahu, speak of a viable Palestine state and a secure Israel based on 1967 borders. While this questions the legitimacy of all settlements, long-standing and “continued,” Obama’s more definitive statement from his Cairo speech: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements” was absent.
Obama’s criticism of what he described as Palestinians’ efforts to delegitimize Israel and “to shame Israel” with the September UN General Assembly resolution was not matched by equivalent criticisms of the intransigence of the Netanyahu government. Moreover, rather than recognizing the conditions which led Abbas to reach out to Hamas and the right of the Palestinians to forge the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement, he chose to emphasize that it raises more difficulties, ignoring the fact that the hardline position and policies of a Netanyahu-Lieberman coalition also raise questions about how serious and reliable a partner it will be?
No longer can America afford to ignore its own interests in favour of an intransigent Israel that ignores US views on things like settlements. Obama should not spend American political capital on convincing Euro-powers to vote down the Palestinian initiative at the UNGA. While steadfastly assuring Israel’s security, the US needs to let Netanyahu feel Israel’s growing isolation in the international community.
President Obama’s May 19 speech made a good start in reconstructing US policy towards the Middle East and improving US – Muslim World relations. However, as post Cairo so today, many will now be expecting bold and decisive policies and actions that turn the administration’s rhetoric into reality. John L. Esposito is University Professor and Founding Director of the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding. He is co-author of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, and author of the recently released book The Future of Islam (2010).