Reflections on President Obama’s Speech on the Middle East and North Africa

President Barack Obama gave a powerful speech today, one of his best. The president was again eloquent, but there is concern here in the U.S. and also abroad in the Arab world, that eloquence is not enough, that it may in fact be more of the problem than the solution. The fine words don’t seem to have substance in Egypt, according to a report in The Washington Post. There appears to be a global concern that Obama’s talk is cheap. Obama’s “Cairo Speech” all over again, one Egyptian declared. Now is the time for decisive action. Now is the time for the President of the United States to put up or shut up. (Of course, what exactly is to be put up is another matter.)

This reminds me of another powerful writer-speaker, President Vaclav Havel. Havel is the other president in my lifetime that I have deeply admired. Both he and Obama are wonderful writers and principled politicians, both have been criticized for the distance between their rhetorical talents and their effectiveness in realizing their principles.

Agreeing with the criticisms of Havel, I sometimes joke about my developing assessment of him. I first knew about Vaclav Havel as a bohemian, as a very interesting absurdist playwright. I wrote my dissertation about Polish theater when this was still his primary occupation, and I avidly read his work then as I tried to understand why theater played such an important role in the opposition to Communism in Central Europe.

I then came to know him as one of the greatest political essayists and dissidents of the twentieth century. At the theoretical core of two of my books, Beyond Glasnost: The Post Totalitarian Mind and The Politics of Small Things: The Power of the Powerless in Dark Times are the ideas to be found in Havel’s greatest essay, “The Power of the Powerless.”

However, as president, Havel was not so accomplished. He presided over the breakup of Czechoslovakia, a development he opposed passionately, but ineffectually. He sometimes seemed to think that he could right a political problem by writing a telling essay, often translated and published in The New York Review of Books. He expressed a moral high ground in these essays, but he did not address the tough and messy side of politics. This is a real weakness of the intellectual as politician, the temptation to think if one can put a solution into words, one has solved a problem.

Does this problem apply to Obama, specifically to his speech today? Many on both the left and the right have heard enough of his speeches. They want action.

I watched a PBS News Hour discussion last night in anticipation of the speech today, and this was the consensus of the expert observers. Therefore, I think it is significant how much of this speech pointed in the direction of specific policy developments. Yet, they were placed in a broader historical and moral context. And the words were important. They did politics. They acted. They were speech acts in Austin’s sense.

I was particularly moved by the way the president told the story of the Arab Spring. He gave it great significance. He alluded to the killing of bin Laden, but didn’t dwell on it. He started with the politics of small things and pointed to civilizational transformation.

“On December 17th, a young vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi was devastated when a police officer confiscated his cart. This was not unique. It’s the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world -– the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity. Only this time, something different happened. After local officials refused to hear his complaints, this young man, who had never been particularly active in politics, went to the headquarters of the provincial government, doused himself in fuel, and lit himself on fire.

There are times in the course of history when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has been building up for years. In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat. So it was in Tunisia, as that vendor’s act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, then thousands. And in the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home –- day after day, week after week — until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power.

The story of this revolution, and the ones that followed, should not have come as a surprise. The nations of the Middle East and North Africa won their independence long ago, but in too many places their people did not. In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of a few. In too many countries, a citizen like that young vendor had nowhere to turn -– no honest judiciary to hear his case; no independent media to give him voice; no credible political party to represent his views; no free and fair election where he could choose his leader.”

The president maintained that this power as it spread throughout the Arab world can no longer be easily repressed, and he expressed a conviction that given the media world we now live in the protestors’ “voices tell us that change cannot be denied.”

But that was it for the moving rhetoric. Obama then turned sober and practical. “The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds.” And he described what might very well become known as the Obama Doctrine.

“The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region. (Applause.)

The U.S. supports a set of universal rights. These rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders – whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.

And we support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.”

This all sounds quite good, but perhaps empty, as some have maintained. However, the substance of the matter is in the details. It is noteworthy that when the president referred to the importance of universal rights he mentioned not only easy targets, but also Sanaa, increasing the pressure on Ali Abdullah Saleh, our ally in “the war on terrorism” to resign. And later when he criticized regimes that violently repress their citizenry for engaging in peaceful protests, he included not only Libya, Syria and Iran, but also the important American ally Bahrain.

“Bahrain is a longstanding partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law.

Nevertheless, we have insisted both publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and we will – and such steps will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.”

He spoke to the people and not only to the rulers of the region. He understood that the problem was not only political, but also economic, offering assistance and engagement in economic development as it addresses the needs of ordinary people. Moreover, he promised to listen to diverse voices coming from the region.

“We will continue to make good on the commitments that I made in Cairo – to build networks of entrepreneurs and expand exchanges in education, to foster cooperation in science and technology, and combat disease. Across the region, we intend to provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned, and who speak uncomfortable truths. And we will use the technology to connect with – and listen to – the voices of the people.”

He gave a forceful commitment to support religious minorities and strong support to the centrality of women’s rights.

“History shows that countries are more prosperous and more peaceful when women are empowered. And that’s why we will continue to insist that universal rights apply to women as well as men – by focusing assistance on child and maternal health; by helping women to teach, or start a business; by standing up for the right of women to have their voices heard, and to run for office. The region will never reach its full potential when more than half of its population is prevented from achieving their full potential.”

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama was careful but took a strong position. There was a little to warm the heart of those on both sides, but also much that would concern both.

Obama made news and earned the wrath of his domestic opposition by declaring, “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.” This earned him an immediate protest by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But he also expressed concerns about the recent Hamas – Fatah agreement and about “symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state.” Thus, the Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri denounced the speech completely.

To my mind, Obama was not tough enough on Netanyahu, but he did move forward. Clearly, something other than complete support for the Israeli right’s position is necessary, contrary to Obama’s hysterical Republican critics. Obama advanced the U.S. position a bit. He said the obvious. The future border between Palestine and Israel will be based on the ’67 borders with negotiated adjustments. That has been the implicit assumption of the peace process for decades. Saying it bluntly, as President Obama did, provides some grounds for progress, suggesting a real response to the Arab Spring.

In his speech this morning, the president gave an account of a rapidly changing political landscape, showing an appreciation of the dynamics driving it and presenting a role for the U.S. to play. It was a broad and impressive depiction of our changing political world. He revealed an understanding of the role of the U.S. in this changing world, and he started playing the role when he turned to the all-important details. He staked out a position.

We will get a sense of how full or empty his rhetoric was today, when he meets Prime Minister Netanyahu tomorrow.

  • Scott

    Netanyahu’s response to Obama’s speech makes the prospects for a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine seem as dismal as ever. This is not just a matter between the US, Israel and Palestine, but between those three parties and the rest of the Arab world. If the other key countries in the Middle East don’t accept a peace agreement, it is unlikely that the Palestinians will either. And those countries want pre-1967 borders as well. If none of the parties are will to compromise on this issue, there will be no peace. Such is the nature of “sacred” boundaries.

  • Michael Corey

    There are a few process considerations which may be worth mentioning. The position that President Obama took on Israel and Palestine shifted him from being a third party (a mediator or honest broker) to being an engaged participant. This happened when he stated musts for a successful negotiation, which if stated at all, are stated backstage in a more impersonal manner. Instead of expressing understandings of opposing views and seeking to build bridges based upon shared interests, he chose to establish parameters without the consent of the main parties. By doing so, President Obama changed roles in the process and now became another party sitting at the table as opposed to being a process facilitator. I suspect that he knew what he was doing and was willing to take the risks.

  • Jeffrey Goldfarb

    I think Obama gave Netanyahu an opportunity to be a historic figure, and Bibi said no thanks, revealing both in his words and his demeanor that he is not interested in peace. A realignment in Israeli politics has now become the most fundamental precondition for a settlement of the Arab – Israeli conflict.

  • Scott

    From listening to recent discussion concerning Obama’s basing peace negotioations on 1967 borders its apparent that this talking point is nothing new; every president since LBJ, including GWB, has made this assertion. Also, the maps comparing the 1967 West Bank and the current state of the Palestinian territories reveal that there is not much left of the Palestinian West Bank. It is engulfed in settlements and slowly dissappearing. Therefore, if Obama were actually suggesting a literal return to the 1967 borders, this would indeed constitute a dramatic shake-up. However, that is not really what Obama is suggesting. He’s saying that negotiations should be “based” on the 1967 borders with “land swaps” being a key component of the negotiations. On the surface, the Republicans, and Netanyahu, don’t seem to understand that. But certainly they must be smarter than that. Indeed, the furor over this matter seems to be a performance meant to score political points. The fact in March, Wikileaks had released a document indicating that Netanyahu actually supports the concept of land swaps. That is not to say he supports a return to 1967 borders, but that’s not what Obama is actually suggesting. But is Netanyahu actually interest in peace? I agree with Dr. Goldfarb; unlike Obama, he’s not the one.