Obama and the Middle East: Two Speeches & Three Challenges

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour
University Faculty Member & International Issues Analyst

President Barack Obama delivered two important speeches on the situation in the Middle East a few days apart; that is, on Thursday, May 19 and Sunday, May 21, 2011. The first speech was delivered at the State Department and focused on the Middle East developments during the past six months and Muslim people’s uprisings. The second speech was delivered at the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Both speeches were marked with a lot of hue and cry, especially the first one at the State Department in which Obama put special emphasis on the role of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

His address to the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was also of high import. In the meantime, Obama met with the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House to discuss the situation in the Middle East, including his own speech at the State Department in which he underlined the importance of 1967 borders.

Intense propaganda by Israelis about unacceptability of 1967 borders as the basis of a new agreement with Palestinians and their sharp remarks was humiliating to Obama as the president of the United States. However, he reiterated his position on those borders in his later address to the AIPAC meeting.

Beyond the ballyhoo on 1967 borders, the important point is general direction of Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East. How his words can be analyzed within framework of general outlines of the US foreign policy?

His speeches, despite their glamorous façade, proved that the United States was facing great challenges in the Middle East, the most important of which were challenges of “mentality,” “direction,” and “limitation.”

Mentality Challenge

Obama’s speeches showed that the main flaw with the US foreign policy is correct understanding of the situation in the Middle East. In both speeches, especially the first one, Obama did his best to prove that his government stood by the Middle Eastern people in their struggle for basic civil freedoms. In fact, this is perhaps the first time that people of the Middle East were direct subject of a US president’s speech.

Obama, however, has apparently forgotten that what is happening in the Middle East, especially during the past six months, is rooted in the US policies. At least, one of the main factors behind the current situation is US policies during the past 30-50 years in supporting lackey regimes in the Arab part of the Middle East.

Obama was smart enough to point out that the people of Middle East are suffering from two problems: firstly, blaming every problem on foreign factors; and secondly, from domestic policies of their own governments. Obama, however, failed to mention that attributing problems to foreign influences, especially from the United States and Israel, is not without a cause and is rooted in the United States foreign policy. Careful review of these concepts will reveal that the United States is not part of a solution for the Middle East, but part of the problem.

Has Obama forgotten that up to three weeks before the fall of Mubarak, he and Clinton were among his supporters? The same was true about Bin Ali. Although Obama criticized Al-Khalifa family in Bahrain, he did not forget to call Bahraini regime an ally of the United States. He avoided of raising the point that US allies are often problems for the Middle Eastern nations.

The US problem in understanding the Middle Eastern developments is not limited to subservient regimes. His assessment of the Arab-Israeli issue is limited to hatred and hope. That is, he emphasized that people should not linger on past hatreds and should have hope in the future. However, he said nothing about the main cause of hatred in the Middle East, which is US unilateral policy in offering all-out support for Israel and its policies which has even elicited protests in the United States.

Direction Challenge

During a few decades of debates between political forces involved in Palestine, the United States policy has been consistently inclined toward the interests of Tel Aviv and Obama’s speech at AIPAC meeting clearly revealed that inclination.

Obama is even upset that Palestinians are going to pursue establishment of a Palestinian state through the United Nations in September. He warned Palestinians against this, though it is the least that they can do because all other ways have been leading to deadlock due to Washington’s support for Tel Aviv.

The challenge with direction in which the United States foreign policy is moving in the Middle East is by no means a simple challenge. It is a structural challenge and Obama has apparently reached the conclusion that he cannot swim against the tide. Thus, he considers recognition of a Palestinian state by the General Assembly a threat to his country’s foreign policy.

It should be noted that Palestinians are sure about securing 188 votes on the floor of the General Assembly. They argue that after the issue is discussed at the Security Council and vetoed by the United States, about 188 out of 200 members of the General Assembly will vote for it. That is, the US policy is at loggerheads with dominant viewpoint of more than 180 members of the United States. Obama slurred over this challenge in his speech and was just content with beautiful words of advice. He is inattentive to challenge of direction, which is the main problem with the US foreign policy in the Middle East and root case of all other problems which surround the situation of Arabs and Israelis.

Meanwhile, despite powerful military, political and economic presence in the Middle East, the United States is also facing special limitations.

Limitation Challenge

Two remarkable points about Obama’s remarks on the US policy in the Middle East included excessive stress on the US capacity to shape relations in the Middle East, on the one hand, and his inattention to many realities that can incapacitate US foreign policy, on the other hand.

Analysis of his speeches will reveal special limitations with which the United States foreign policy is facing.

Obama only talked about Yemen and Ali Abdullah Saleh. He said nothing about Saudi Arabia. As for other US allies, his speech was devoid of remarkable facts. He also announced that his country was ready to write off one billion dollars of Egypt’s foreign debt, though given the current economic situation in the world and Egypt, one billion dollars is not much.

The fact that Obama skipped over many issues and just sufficed to insignificant economic issues like establishment of an enterprise punch and some large-scale economic recommendations, reflect his limitations in the Middle East.

US limitations in the Middle East are multilayered. On the one hand, the United States is grappling with financial and economic pressures while, on the other hand, its influence on some allies like the Saudi Arabia is dwindling.

US capacity for influencing many developments of the Middle East has been reduced to temporary management with no capacity to radically address many issues and shape future relations.

Historical background and the attitude of people of the Middle East are other factors which further limit the United States latitude in the region. The United States is no more in a legitimate or respectable position. The reason is past positions taken by the White House both with regard to the issue of Palestine and US allies. Such mental and theoretical limitations can be seen even in secular and liberal analyses of the west.

On the whole, both Obama’s speeches mirrored three challenges of mentality, direction, and limitation with which the United States is faced in the Middle East. He may deliver more eloquent speeches in the months to come, but it is not clear to what extent he will be able to steer the situation in the Middle East toward stability, democracy, development and progress. It is, however, clear that multidirectional and uncoordinated management of an issue in a region like the Middle East, where many actors are at work in multiple layers, by no means seems simple or feasible.

Source: Iranian Diplomacy
Translated By: Iran Review