RE: Obama on the “Arab Spring”

President Obama’s Arab Spring speech was standard fare: well composed, well targeted and spread thin in its attempt to appeal to multiple audiences simultaneously. It also reframed American policy in a rhetoric that attempts to show that “America’s interests are not hostile to peoples’ hopes” in the Middle East and North Africa. Habiba Hamid, via Twitter, noted a “‘US democratisation agenda’ as distinct from democracy promotion” with the administration embracing a wider variety of political actors in region as a part of the region’s political evolution. (As the President said: “America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard, even if we disagree with them. We look forward to working with all who embrace genuine and inclusive democracy,” a tacit reference to Islamists.) The speech contains little that is new: it is primarily a reiteration of current policy initiatives presented together with a narrative recalling the 2009 speech at Cairo. Below are thoughts on interesting highlights as far as this blogger is concerned. 

  1. Explicit support for the Egyptian and Tunisian transitions. This includes financial support requested by both Tunis and Cairo and inline with recent European policy. No mention of conditionality on foreign policy or domestic reforms. Related to this was a commitment to support democratic transitions in the region.  “We intend to provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned, and who speak uncomfortable truths.” This continues existing American policies that, unfortunately, do not enjoy as high a profile as others. Only three North African countries are mentioned by name — Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania are left out. In February the administration criticized the Algerian government’s loud response to the 12 February protests, to which Algiers responded with definitive negativity (the Algerians are more receptive to suggestions behind closed doors) and it is likely if Algeria was given any thought at all it was in this context and that of the quotation above (several elements in the protest movement received support from American institutions earlier in the decade or even later; also keep in mind that the US-Algeria relationship is more halting and less expansive than public discourse has permitted of late). Morocco is omitted, likely the result of Rabat’s extreme sensitivity to criticism and reforms (which Secretary Clinton praised effusively in March) and it is likely that if it was considered in the construction of the speech it was dealt with in a similar way as Algeria (see point 5). It is unlikely Mauritania or Sudan were considered at all. On the whole, though, one may see the mention of working the EU to increase intra-regional trade and liberalization as being particularly relevant for North Africa.
  2. Additional condemnation of Libya and Syria. The US has limited influence over either country but has called for regime change in both. The message to Syria’s Bashar As’ad to   lead the country’s “transition to democracy” or “get out of the way” will please domestic critics (there are many demanding that the administration recall its recently appointed ambassador from Damascus) and perhaps embolden Syrian dissenters. It is also possible that Obama’s condemnation and ultimatum will have the psychological affect of further cornering the Syrian regime and making its responses to the uprising there more aggressive and violent rather than less. Obama used his comments on Syria as a jumping point to criticize Iran in a manner typical of American statements on its nuclear program and human rights record. Obama’s statement on Syria was less straightforward than his words on Libya, perhaps reflecting a lesson learned from the intervention there and a fundamental recognition of the basic lack of American leverage in Damascus (still, as Kennan used say: “a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body the size of this room and brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment”). There appears to be no mention of any change of course on Libya and no consideration of its regional (or legal) consequences of yet, as evidenced by the comment that without UNSC 1973 and the No-Fly Zone “[t]he message would have been clear: keep power by killing as many people as it takes”; it is clear that the Syrians, Yemenis and Bahrainis have drawn this lesson anyway.
  3. Mild and specific criticism of the Bahraini government. Bahrain was mentioned twice: once as Obama called for the monarchy to “engage in a dialogue” with the opposition and to not throw so many opposition figures in jail and secondly in relation to religious freedom where the President called for an end to the demolition of Shi’i mosques (the second is somewhat brave, given the sensitivity of the issue). The President spoke more nervously when mentioning Bahrain than in most other parts of the speech and that he mentioned specific concerns reiterates the administration’s strong support for the government there given Bahrain’s importance of the Fifth Fleet for the US military presence in the Arab Gulf. The speech did not call for regime change or an explicit end to the use of violence against Bahraini demonstrators (the comment on “brute force” is rather separate and artful). While the Bahrainis (and Saudis) will likely receive these remarks poorly they do not signal a special or distinct change in the existing posture on the uprising in that country. The speech reflects the same cautiousness as the tone in the summary of recent US initiatives on Bahrain provided by the State Department here (note especially: the mention of “human security” and Secretary Clinton’s statement that “our goal is a credible political process that can address the legitimate aspirations of all the people of Bahrain” and that Deputy Secretary Steinberg “urged all parties to pursue a path of reconciliation and comprehensive political dialogue”. None of this amounts to requests for substantial change but processes that restore the status quo ante and normalcy. Manama’s takeaway from meetings with Americans is clear: the Americans support us.)
  4. High [and selective] praise for non-violence. As is common in Obama speeches he called attention to the “moral force of non-violence”, comparing Mohamed Bouazizi favorably with Rosa Parks and other American civil rights strugglers (note that this blogger’s former professor Rami Khouri and others have made this quite apt comparison before). There is a problem here that the President did not address: how can the United States openly support armed rebellion in Libya while declaring its support for principally or even exclusively (as it comes off in today’s speech) non-violent struggle? (The administration’s barely tacit support for the Libyan resistance is perhaps the only instance where it has clearly supported an Arab uprising.) The President’s comment on Palestine complicate his statements on non-violence as well. While opposing international recognition for a Palestinian state and other efforts at the “delegitimization” of Israel the president makes non-violent Palestinian efforts to achieve their objectives (such as divestment, unilateral declarations of statehood, etc.) with violent ones and tosses them in the same bucket as the violent tactics of Hamas. The President’s speech delegitimizes just about any Palestinian effort to pressure Israel, perhaps because such efforts weaken American control over the negotiation process and displease significant parts of his domestic electoral constituency. Thus there are two exceptions to the use of violence in the President’s speech: the Libyan rebels (against Qadhafi’s forces) and Israel (against Palestinians).
  5. Non-mention of key allies. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and most of the Arab Gulf were entirely unmentioned in the speech and addressed tacitly for fear of further irritating regimes already feeling vulnerable and attempting to reassure governments skeptical of the US’s willingness to back allies in times of internal crisis after the fall of Mubarak. Saudi Arabia’s posture on the “Arab spring” has been largely defensive and negative; Riyadh will likely be displeased by the tone of Obama’s speech much in the same way it was incensed by Washington’s response to the Egyptian and Libyan uprisings. The allies left unmentioned are mainly covered indirectly — under comments criticizing “patronage that distributes wealth based on tribe or sect” for example. The omission of Jordan reflects it position in regard to the Palestinian question and a desire not to alienate that country after having just lost a key pillar in Egypt. This caution can be seen in the President’s statements after meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah on 17 May:
    1. [. . .] [W]e trust that during this remarkable time of transition in the region that Jordan will be at the forefront in being able to move a process forward that creates greater opportunity and ensures that Jordan is a model of a prosperous, modern, and successful Arab state under your leadership.
  6. Emphasis on women’s rights and religious freedom. The comments on women’s rights reflect continuity as well as do the statements on the need for religious tolerance. Specific mention of the need for respect for Coptic (in Egypt) and Shi’i rights in Bahrain signals an understanding of the sectarian question beyond the Iranian issue as well as the overall focus on the process of reform over the long term. It is important to note how brief these lines were in relation to the other subjects covered and their overall prioritization in American Middle East policy, at the second or third level after issues like terrorism, Israel and energy.

3 thoughts on “RE: Obama on the “Arab Spring”

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