I went under the hot lights and answered a few questions thrown my way by FMFP on President Obama’s recent speech on the Arab Spring in the Middle East:
1. What was the main takeaway or takeaways from the President’s speech?
Pat: Firstly, that the US continues to put its weight behind the forces of democracy and liberalism in their foreign affairs. President Obama’s speech channeled his inner George W. Bush and Woodrow Wilson in this speech, unequivocally putting the United States on the side of those seeking political and social freedoms in the Middle East. Now following up this rhetoric with policies is the hard part. It is much easier to critique the Bahrain government is a speech in Washington D.C. than in person when they are holding the rights to a key American naval base. The President offered economic aid in the form of loans, investments, debt forgiveness to Egypt and Tunisia, but these will need the backing of other international actors, including the IMF and their new leader, and will take awhile to see fruit.
Another takeaway is that the Obama administration wants you to believe they were not got off guard with these events in the Middle East. This is not surprising as every administration/leader wants to appear omnipresent and in charge, but the ad hoc approach taken by the administration as these events unfolded presented a different picture. Basically, the administration seemed to just be tackling the events individually as they arose as best they could. This is not a huge criticism as few saw this coming and there were many tough calls (Mubarak alone) to be made, but these events did bring to light the fact that the administration had no overarching strategy or outlook to base its policy on.
A final takeaway is the fact that this President can’t help himself when it comes to the Israel-Palestinian eternal conflict. This in many ways is praiseworthy as the President refuses to throw up his hands at the continual roadblocks to this seemingly intractable problems. But I just don’t get it. With Hamas coming back into the fold and Netanyahu holding strong, it is difficult to imagine a solution to this issue anytime soon.
2. Did the President comment on US policy toward the Arab Spring – the political uprisings against dictators in Syria, Egypt, Yemen and other countries?
Pat: Very much so, but not with too many specifics. He did say that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad had to implement reforms or ‘get out of the way’, by far President Obama’s strongest rhetoric on Syria’s uprising. Obama also had relatively strong words for the leaders of Bahrain and Yemen, two US allies. The President tried to put the US on the side of all the peaceful demonstrators and made a convincing argument (though I’m a sympathetic ear) that American interests are furthered in the long term when more people get to have a voice in their government. The problem is this gets blurry quickly. The US does not want the Yemen or Bahrain governments toppled by extreme anti- American forces that could hurt our interests. The US also does not wish to see the Muslim Brotherhood gain too much power in Egypt. Instability anywhere is also a global harm that the administration should be weary of, as I believe was a heavy consideration for intervening in Libya (right next door to a vulnerable Egypt).
3. Did the President address the topic of foreign aid to Pakistan? In the last ten years, America gave some $20 billion in foreign aid to Pakistan ($9 billion to fight militants). After talk of Pakistan aiding al Qaeda and other terrorist networks, does the President have a position on whether we should continue supporting this critical state?
Pat: No, he did not, but in fairness this was a speech about the Middle East. Obama has been quiet about aid to Pakistan since the Osama assassination. The President is keeping close to vest on this one, I believe, because his administration probably has no plans to curtail the current aid package to Pakistan. The American people are clearly fed up with Pakistan government and military as only 17% support maintaining the aid in one poll, but realpolitik comes into play here. Unfortunately, the US is still dependent on the Pakistan state and military for a positive outcome in Afghanistan and for information regarding anti-US militants inside of Pakistan. The US is in bed with Pakistan in the War on Terror and its a bed with tight sheets.
4. On the topic of Israel and Palestine, the President advocated a return to pre-1967 War borders. Clearly this was not welcome news for Israeli supporters and its president who just visited with Obama. Is this a change in US policy? What will likely be the implications of such a policy?
Pat: Obama has argued that it is not a change, but perception matters greatly, and others, including AIPAC, Palestinian and Israeli leadership, major American news outlets, believe it was a shift. Obama has bent over backwards the past few days to calm everyone down and try to emphasize the ‘swap’ part of his 1967 borders statement, but this has likely made a difficult situation that much harder. Israeli leader Netanyahu has already come out strong against any idea that Israel will ever return to borders before the 1967 war, calling it not ‘reality‘. A situation that didn’t need anymore setbacks, just appeared to get another one.
5. Did the President address the efforts of the US and NATO in Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan – our three military fronts in the Middle East?
Pat: Iraq was mentioned in a positive light. In fact, President Obama brought it up as a possible shining example of a pluralistic society governing itself democratically to all the other states in the region going through either rebellion or democratic growing pains. The President reiterated the fact that the US, along with the international community, halted a large scale massacre in Libya by acting with force and that Qaddafi will have to go eventually. It is interesting to note though how Tunisia, Egypt, and even Bahrain and Syria, received either more or almost as much attention in the speech as Libya, a state we are currently at war with! Afghanistan was mentioned exactly once and I can shorten the only sentence even further: Taliban on run, US troops leaving soon, Afghans will take lead. Heck, that was almost as long as the actual Afghan part of the speech!