Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Obama faces hard choices in Mideast speech

A man holds up a Koran during an anti-government rally to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa May 17, 2011

Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

In his famous Cairo speech two years ago, U.S. President Barack Obama addressed his remarks to the Islamic world. Invoking the Koran, he sought "a new beginning," one that would redress years of tension between the United States and Muslims.

Arabs throughout the Middle East clutched at the Obama words. Maybe, they thought, this guy really will make a difference. Only Israel was audibly wary.

Almost 24 months later, however, the promises of that speech have not been fulfilled, at least in the eyes of most Arabs.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Obama speaks again Thursday; this time, with remarks expected to be more focused on the Arab world.

Since Cairo, there have been several significant developments, including: the killing of Osama bin Laden, the popular uprisings in the Arab world and reconciliation between the warring Palestinian factions.

The Cairo speech was an artful balancing act, intended to please as many people as possible. It had something in it for the Arab street and for Arab leaders, for Palestinians and even for Israelis.

But if Thursday's remarks in Washington are balanced, if they attempt to find a middle ground between competing sides, they will please none of the parties.

If it's to be effective, this speech must make some hard choices.

What Arab people want to hear

In these heady days of 2011, with autocratic rulers cast out or fearful of being overthrown, many Arab citizens want to hear clear and unequivocal support for democratic movements and liberal values.

Story continues below advertisement

The Cairo speech paid scant attention to these matters. One of the shortest sections was the one devoted to democracy (a mere 376 words out of 5,772).

In a way, Mr. Obama's call for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to go was fulfilling the speech's implicit pledge to support democracy.

But where is Mr. Obama now, Arabs ask, when it comes to Syria, where several hundred protesters have been killed by security forces and hundreds, perhaps thousands, more imprisoned? Or when it comes to Bahrain, where largely Saudi forces keep order as journalists are arrested and students made to sign oaths of loyalty?

In the case of Yemen, Washington has called for President Ali Abdallah Saleh to step down after three decades of tyranny, but has done nothing to back up those words while youthful protesters continue to be killed.

Indeed, all that has come from this vaunted "Arab Spring," they say, is the downfall of two relatively mild regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, while the region's greater despots remain in power.

Most of the Arab world is quite happy about the demise of Osama bin Laden, and about NATO's efforts to protect rebels in Libya and hasten the end of the regime of Moammar Gadhafi. But they reject the cozy relationship the United States has with many of the region's autocratic rulers.

Story continues below advertisement

A recent Pew Research Center survey showed the rise of democratic movements has not led to an improvement of America's image in the Arab countries. Indeed, in a country such as Jordan, only 13 per cent of the people hold a favourable view of the United States, half the number who felt that way two years ago.

Platitudes will not be enough to change this. The Arab people want to hear about concrete action to help them change their governments or their governments' practices.

What Arab leaders want to hear

They would like to hear a repeat from the Cairo speech in which a leader such as Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah was applauded for efforts to promote interfaith dialogue, and it was deemed enough of a commitment to democracy if leaders governed in ways "that reflect the will of the people."

What these leaders do not want to hear is the U.S. President condemning any more of their numbers. Saudi Arabia is still furious that Mr. Obama abandoned Hosni Mubarak by calling for his departure. Mr. Mubarak, the Saudis say, was an ally of Saudi Arabia and of the United States, and had been crucial in safeguarding Israel.

It could be just as short-sighted, these leaders say, to turn on any more of them. Better, they argue, to continue the slow path to pluralism.

They point out that even in a country such as Syria, where it's clear the state's armed forces are killing unarmed citizens, the outcome of pushing for regime change is unpredictable. The Syrian state could fracture into several pieces, with Kurds, Druze and others attempting to go their own way, upsetting the delicate balance in the region.

What Israelis want to hear

To many Israelis, and certainly to their government, a nightmare is unfolding.

They have seen Egypt's Mr. Mubarak, a partner in opposing Islamists, overthrown by a government sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood. They fear Syria's Bashar al-Assad will be toppled and replaced by a Sunni government also sympathetic to the Brotherhood. And they now have seen their partner in peace, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, climb into bed with Hamas, a Brotherhood spinoff.

Will they be coming next for the Abdullahs - the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, they ask? Or for Morocco's King Mohammed? All are great allies of the United States and quiet friends of Israel.

Under these circumstances, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not welcome a demand from Mr. Obama for any concessions.

What Mr. Netanyahu and his government would like to hear is a demand that the Palestinians drop their bid for United Nations recognition as a state. (They'd also like to hear Mr. Obama insist that Palestinians recognize Israel as the "Jewish state," but they believe that is too much to hope for.) It's the Palestinian bid for UN recognition that has made Israel most nervous. They foresee being dragged into all sorts of legal and diplomatic disputes and having their level of international support plunge even lower than it is now.

This explains why Mr. Netanyahu this week showed greater flexibility on territorial compromise than ever before.

Israelis are counting on Mr. Obama to say the United States will not deal with a Palestinian Authority that includes Hamas. Demanding that Hamas renounce terror, accept Israel and previous Palestinian agreements would not be sufficient to this Israeli government. It doesn't trust Hamas to keep its word.

What Palestinians want to hear

To Palestinians, the peace process has served mostly as a cover for expanded Israeli settlements and loss of access to Jerusalem and its holy sites.

It would be easy for Mr. Obama to say he supports the creation of a Palestinian state - he said that two years ago. That's not enough to satisfy Palestinians this time.

They want to hear support for their bid for UN recognition. The bid is "no stunt," Mr. Abbas said this week in a New York Times op-ed, arguing that the Palestinian state remains a promise unfulfilled from the UN's 1947 resolution to create a Jewish state [ED NOTE: THESE ARE CORRECT TERMS]/note> and an Arab state.

Palestinians also would like Mr. Obama to follow through on statements made in Cairo. He called on Palestinians to develop their institutions and their capacity to govern (as they have). He called on Hamas to unify the Palestinian people (as it has, albeit without renouncing violence or recognizing Israel). And he called for an end to settlements (as Israel has not done).

Palestinians feel that the political stars are aligned in their favour: the popular Arab uprisings, the reconciliation between Hamas and the PLO and the mobilization of the Palestinian community as evidenced by last Sunday's demonstrations. (Indeed, many see Sunday's border clashes as a dress rehearsal for something much greater should their efforts at UN recognition fail.)

As a consequence, Palestinians do not expect Mr. Obama to disappoint them again.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.