President Barack Obama’s speech on the Middle East and North Africa yesterday is being considered a landmark event in US foreign policy.
Made in the wake of the so-called Arab spring and the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Obama has clearly opted to set out his view of how America will engage in the new realities emerging in much of the Muslim world.
Does Obama’s speech change “everything”? Does it represent the drastic re-alignment of US foreign policy many observers are suggesting?
Elements of it are quite noteworthy. This comes at a time when because of events in the Arab world, it could be construed as a landmark speech whatever Obama’s intention.
He has also given very clear policy statements to a number of regional actors. He was perhaps softer than people expected on Syria, telling the President there to reform or get out of the way.
He made quite a stern statement to both the Palestinians and the Israelis in their dispute where he basically said to the Palestinians, don’t muck around with things like a symbolic declaration of statehood at the UN in September. That would be unproductive.
He especially said to the Israelis “wake up, you are going to have to do things very differently, you are going to have to make changes and genuine peace concessions”. The concessions will need to include a starting point that you often tell your people and others is not acceptable to you, especially that reference to the 1967 lines.
In other respects it was classic Obama. There was a lot of high rhetoric there but some of it is less practical than other bits. The prospect of this unfolding the way this speech suggested it might is still very distant
Where does this new speech fit with Obama’s Cairo speech of 2009?
The Cairo speech is exactly the parallel that people are drawing here, that it was a landmark event and it encouraged and it predicted what was seen to happen subsequently. That is a more sympathetic to Obama, he was still quite guarded in what he said in Cairo, and he was there on the invitation of Hosni Mubarak who was subsequently overthrown. Mubarak was of course a key US ally.
There is probably too much to this to say that the Obama Cairo speech caused or contributed to these protests, but these sorts of speeches are very good, they tap into the public mood. They predict the public mood to some extent.
This speech coming at this particular time, it is possibly going to have an effect of giving a confidence boost to some of the protestors in places like Syria and Yemen and the fighters in Libya are probably going to get a boost out of this speech.
Obama has pretty much said my foreign policy is incorporate American and global values into what we do abroad, not just American interests.
Many US presidents become obsessed with their legacy in their second terms and often decide bringing peace to the Middle East will be that legacy. Is Obama in danger of getting bogged down in legacy hunting if he wins a second term, as seems likely?
In a way the legacy is happening. People are probably going to turn around and tag this speech as part of an Obama Doctrine, or as part of a key foreign policy watershed in the Obama administration. They would probably tag it as an even-handed, populist, civil rights type of foreign policy mixed in with an abandonment of some of America’s old allies that were allies purely on the basis of short term interest rather than long term interests or values.
So in that sense, Obama’s legacy is perhaps unfolding as we speak. The bigger risk I think he is going to have is if he gets a second term is to ensure the drawdown from Afghanistan occurs smoothly. He also has to make sure that the relationship with Israel is not permanently damaged or gets to the point where it is not functioning properly.
At that stage you’d have a real risk that peace could go nowhere even if the Americans were pushing for it heavily. Finally, there is the danger that the protests don’t lead to much substantive change. If that happens, if you just get cosmetic changes in leaders and not profound political reform and opening, then people are going to look back on this and draw parallels with Obama’s rhetoric and say, it is fine to have high rhetoric, it is fine to have protests and remove leaders, but where is the real change in all of this?
That would be a risk for his legacy, if in Egypt say, one dictator just replaced another.
Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney has said Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus” with this speech. Do you agree?
I would disagree with that in the strongest possible terms, as they say. What Obama has said in my view is giving a wake up call to Israel and saying that there’s every risk you guys Israel) are going to end up on the wrong side of the protests and the wrong side of the protests and the wrong side of change in the region. There is every chance you’ll be stuck on your own and you will damage your relationship with the rest of the world.
He didn’t talk about having to concede all or part of Jerusalem, he didn’t talk about explicit concessions on refugees. All he said was that the starting point for the negotiations ought to be the 1967 line with room to do swaps as well. It implies that Israel could negotiate to keep some of the big settlement blocs and fold them into Israel itself, it implies that Jerusalem would be negotiated, probably splittable between the two parties.
It also implies that some of these settlements, the more remote ones, will go, which is pretty much accepted will have to happen as part of any workable peace agreement. In that sense Obama isn’t saying anything that people who are watching this every day don’t assume. The agreement will see neither side get what they want.