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Obama’s Middle East Speech Must Be Backed by Concrete Actions

Protesters outside the White House rallied for aid to Libya in February. (photo: messay.com)

As you may know, President Obama plans to give a speech tomorrow on the Arab uprising, where he seeks to deliver a coherent response to the protests throughout the Middle East and North Africa. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that’s not really possible. On actions, not words, the Obama Administration’s response has been incoherent and haphazard. The President appeared to support uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and may have played a role in getting Hosni Mubarak to step down. Then there’s the effort of military intervention to prevent a massacre in Libya. But the White House has generally turned a blind eye to events in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and other flashpoints. The mantra has not been to “lead from behind,” as claimed by a senior Administration official, but to lead from behind the Saudis, whose preferences have been mirrored in the US approach throughout. Certainly, there has been no effort to fully reset the US relationship with the Muslim world, where we prop up dictators to secure safe passage of hydrocarbon resources. And as a result, the Arab spring has devolved into a winter of bitter repression by authoritarian governments killing their own citizens.

Shadi Hamid thinks Obama should offer an apology to the Muslim world:

On health care and financial reform, Obama was careful and cautious, avoiding maximalist impulses, splitting the difference between competing options, and settling for the language of pragmatism rather than that of inspiration. It appears that Obama has taken this same approach in the Arab world […]

This time, platitudes about America’s commitment to democracy will not do, because they ring hollow to Arab audiences. No one really questions that Washington believes in democracy and universal human rights—in theory. What they doubt is the ability and willingness to translate such abstractions into real policy changes on the ground. Any major speech should address this dilemma head on.

Doing so will require something as simple and powerful as it is unlikely: a real apology. The United States has a tragic history in the region. For more than five decades, successive administrations, with surprising consistency, funded, supported, and armed some of the region’s most repressive governments. (We still do.) This, we now know, not only betrayed our ideals but undermined our strategic interests in the region. Autocracies do not, after all, last forever. If there has ever been a time to reassess and reorient U.S. policy in the Middle East, it is now.

Without coming to terms with our mistakes in the region, we will never be able to set them right. Instead, we will mewl about human rights and democracy and freedom, and talk about unidentified “pressure” in the face of brutality. [cont’d.]

Hamid offers a number of possible steps Obama can take, including aligning with the Muslim public rather than their regimes, and explaining the sins of prior policy. But I think he can do something concrete. He can honor the signed commitment to leave Iraq to its people on schedule at the end of 2011. John McCain and Lindsey Graham are meeting today with Joe Biden, and the subject is probably Iraq. They want to ensure a permanent presence. The President can reject this. He can give 30 million Iraqis the gift of self-determination over occupation. He can stop this wheedling and cajoling of Nouri al-Maliki to get an extension of the military presence, which will collapse the government and spark mass protests where the US military gets needlessly placed in the Hosni Mubarak role.

There’s talk that Obama will formally endorse the pre-1967 borders as the basis for a Palestinian state, which would be bold, but he could go further there too, and say that the United States will vote for recognition of Palestine at the United Nations. The commitment to peace and security and self-government in the Muslim world must be backed up by actions. Words won’t cut it anymore.

CommunityThe Bullpen

Obama’s Middle East Speech Must Be Backed By Concrete Actions

As you may know, President Obama plans to give a speech tomorrow on the Arab uprising, where he seeks to deliver a coherent response to the protests throughout the Middle East and North Africa. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that’s not really possible. On actions, not words, the Obama Administration’s response has been incoherent and haphazard. The President appeared to support uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and may have played a role in getting Hosni Mubarak to step down. Then there’s the effort of military intervention to prevent a massacre in Libya. But the White House has generally turned a blind eye to events in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and other flashpoints. The mantra has not been to “lead from behind,” as claimed by a senior Administration official, but to lead from behind the Saudis, whose preferences have been mirrored in the US approach throughout. Certainly, there has been no effort to fully reset the US relationship with the Muslim world, where we prop up dictators to secure safe passage of hydrocarbon resources. And as a result, the Arab spring has devolved into a winter of bitter repression by authoritarian governments killing their own citizens.

Shadi Hamid thinks Obama should offer an apology to the Muslim world:

On health care and financial reform, Obama was careful and cautious, avoiding maximalist impulses, splitting the difference between competing options, and settling for the language of pragmatism rather than that of inspiration. It appears that Obama has taken this same approach in the Arab world […]

This time, platitudes about America’s commitment to democracy will not do, because they ring hollow to Arab audiences. No one really questions that Washington believes in democracy and universal human rights—in theory. What they doubt is the ability and willingness to translate such abstractions into real policy changes on the ground. Any major speech should address this dilemma head on.

Doing so will require something as simple and powerful as it is unlikely: a real apology. The United States has a tragic history in the region. For more than five decades, successive administrations, with surprising consistency, funded, supported, and armed some of the region’s most repressive governments. (We still do.) This, we now know, not only betrayed our ideals but undermined our strategic interests in the region. Autocracies do not, after all, last forever. If there has ever been a time to reassess and reorient U.S. policy in the Middle East, it is now.

Without coming to terms with our mistakes in the region, we will never be able to set them right. Instead, we will mewl about human rights and democracy and freedom, and talk about unidentified “pressure” in the face of brutality.

Hamid offers a number of possible steps Obama can take, including aligning with the Muslim public rather than their regimes, and explaining the sins of prior policy. But I think he can do something concrete. He can honor the signed commitment to leave Iraq to its people on schedule at the end of 2011. John McCain and Lindsey Graham are meeting today with Joe Biden, and the subject is probably Iraq. They want to ensure a permanent presence. The President can reject this. He can give 30 million Iraqis the gift of self-determination over occupation. He can stop this wheedling and cajoling of Nouri al-Maliki to get an extension of the military presence, which will collapse the government and spark mass protests where the US military gets needlessly placed in the Hosni Mubarak role.

There’s talk that Obama will formally endorse the pre-1967 borders as the basis for a Palestinian state, which would be bold, but he could go further there too, and say that the United States will vote for recognition of Palestine at the United Nations. The commitment to peace and security and self-government in the Muslim world must be backed up by actions. Words won’t cut it anymore.

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