Friday, May 20, 2011

Some quick thoughts on Obama’s speech.

Nice speech. Thoughtful and nuanced, which means it’ll be slagged by everyone who didn’t hear exactly what they wanted to hear.

The two biggest complaints that I’ve heard in response to the speech are the absence of any mention of Saudi Arabia and the issue of the ’67 Israel/Palestine borders.

Frankly, I thought that Saudi Arabia’s name was pretty clearly written between the lines of most of Obama’s comments on Bahrain and many of his other comments (and the Saudis certainly heard it).

The problem is that Saudi Arabia is currently helping us out in Yemen (a prospect that I have very little faith in, but one where our options are extremely limited). Given that Yemen is the Afghanistan of the Arabic speaking world, right now would not be a good time for Saudi Arabia to become the Pakistan of the Arabic speaking world.  (Okay so it’s a terrible analogy, and anyway, Saudi Arabia is already the Pakistan of the Arabic speaking world).

Regardless, Saudi Arabia got the message.  The fact that Obama’s speech pissed them off is evidence enough that they knew exactly what he meant.

(sidenote -  I almost wish that Saudi arabia’s army would just straight up invade and occupy Yemen for a few years so they could be on the receiving end of what American troops have been handling for the last 8-10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan).

As far as Obama’s comment about Israel’s 67 borders,  I’ll just repeat what Middle East Journal editor Michael Dunn said on this issue:

Using the 67 borders as a basis for negotiation is nothing new, and the people who reacted the most strongly to Obama’s statement were those who had the most to gain from making Obama look bad in the eyes of Israel’s American supporters.

And that’s what Obama said. He said that the '67 lines should be where the negotiations should start.

And that was his central point.

Negotiations have to start.

I understand that Hamas is a terrorist organization. They’re also blatantly corrupt and hopelessly ideological in their day-to-day operations.  The Palestinian people know this.  In fact, the only reason why the prospect of a Palestinian unity government is in the works is because Hamas and Fateh both know that their legitimacy as representatives of the Palestinian people is deeply in danger.  Personally, I suspect that Fatah is doing it because they know that it’ll screw over Hamas more than themselves in the long run, and Hamas is committed because they know their time in the driver’s seat will end with the next Palestinian election, and they need to make sure they are poised to preserve some small modicum of power.

But here’s the thing about the speech: 

If Obama says something his critics disagree with they can wail about his naïveté, or fundamental wrongness. If he happens to say something they agree with, they can dismiss it by just saying, “it’s just a speech, actually carrying it out is something entirely different”

If Obama moves to support the anti-government protesters in the Middle East, his critics can say, “He’s selling out our longtime allies/partners!”

If he doesn’t move quickly enough, they can say “He only sided with the forces of freedom and democracy when he had no other choice!”

The truth is simple, we are in uncharted territory.

When the Soviet Union collapsed it resulted in the restoration of individual statehood to a multitude of entities that had previously been bound to a single institutional core.  In the case of the Arab Spring we are watching dozens of individual countries transform themselves into something they’ve never been before.

Frankly, this is the biggest challenge did any president has had to face since Roosevelt (FDR, not Teddy).   
The scope and scale of we are watching is literally unprecedented.

Say what you will, but for me (as someone who spends an inordinate amount of time attending to the cultures and politics in the Middle East and North Africa) I can say without reservation that although I don’t agree with every policy action that Barack Obama has made in response to the Arab Spring I’m glad he’s the man making those decisions.  I don’t think anyone else that was in the 2008 US presidential runnings would have handled it as well.

It should come as no surprise to those of you who have been reading this blog with any degree of regularity that I tend to be favorably inclined towards the US State Department's strategy in the various Middle East and North African countries.  As much as rapid reactions might be appealing, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the events on the ground, and every single country has its own unique challenges.  Although I tend to be fairly optimistic about the long-term outcome of the Arab spring, there is still a tremendous amount of uncertainty and danger inherent to the situation.

This raises an important point, and one that is easy to lose track of in the overwhelming onslaught of instantaneous news updates and widespread upheaval: we are witnessing a transformation that is unprecedented.  We must not let our impatience inure us to the magnitude of what is happening.

This although the seeds were sown long before Mohammed Boazzizi set himself on fire or Khaled Said was beaten to death by the Egyptian police, those events are only months old.

As we watch the daily and weekly reports for more than a dozen past and passing dictatorships it is easy for us to yield to impatience, and wonder “what’s taking so long?”

Remember this – today was only day 95 of the Libyan revolution.

The Egyptian revolution is only four months old.

The Bosnian war of independence took three years. The Croatian war of independence took four years.

Who knows where we’ll be in a month, much less a year.

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