President Obama was true to his advance publicity today as he addressed an audience at the U.S. State Department. The almost hour-long speech had been built up, in classic Obama Administration style, through interviews, social media, tweets, and advance releases as post–Osama bin Laden outreach to the peoples of the Arab world and Middle East. The speech was intended to capture the hope and change of the Arab Spring.
The speech was perfectly timed with prime time in the Middle East and Europe—its target audiences—and once again the Obama publicity machine delivered a fine product. The President spoke movingly of the desperate conditions that brought a young Tunisian fruit vendor to immolate himself in December, igniting protests throughout the Middle East against repressive, corrupt, and autocratic regimes.
At a time when new technologies make interaction with the world so much more feasible, from cell phones to satellite TV to Internet and social media, young Arabs are no longer willing to endure a future without hope. The President also correctly pointed out that the peaceful protests have achieved regime change in two countries (with potentially more to come), something that 10 years of violent extremism has never even come close to.
It is not likely, however, that today’s speech will be enough to turn around public sentiment among young Arabs as far as views of the U.S. and President Obama are concerned. According to a recent Pew Center survey, even in the aftermath of the Middle East uprisings, the U.S. has a favorable rating of 20 percent in Egypt and 13 percent in Jordan. The U.S. is widely perceived as having supported the very same dictators that the Obama Administration is now turning away from.
Indeed, looking beyond the rhetoric, the Administration is struggling to keep up, trying to catch a tiger by its tail. Seated in the audience at the State Department was former peace process envoy George Mitchell, whose resignation Friday was terse and sudden. Having failed to achieve any progress whatsoever, nor present any semblance of an Obama peace plan, Mitchell resigned in disillusionment. Disillusionment is also besetting the Middle East where young demonstrators are waiting for results from their unprecedented political successes against regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
The Middle East, a region of 400 million people, most of whom are under 30 and most of them unemployed, desperately needs political development, respect for human rights, and economic opportunity. The “mini-Marshall Plan” for Egypt proposed by the President has a rhetorical ring to it, but it may well sink in the vast sea of Egypt’s economic problems.
The most remarkable aspects of President Obama’s eloquent State Department Middle East speech today was its direct repudiation of his Administration’s previous policy toward the region and the ardent embrace of the policy of the Bush Administration. “We face the historic opportunity to show that we are on the side of the fruit vendor more than the dictators,” the President said—which is of course the complete opposite of his position in 2009.
President Obama even hailed Iraq today as a shining example of Middle Eastern democracy, an example of multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy in the making. Unfortunately, as the President praised the Iraqi people for choosing a democratic future, he neglected to mention the leadership of George W. Bush, the 10 years of American military involvement, the billions of dollars, and the thousands of American lives it took to achieve that progress.
As President Obama presented his vision of the future of the Middle East, it would have been appropriate to hear an acknowledgement of American sacrifice made in the interest of real and tangible progress.