The venue of choice for the speech was the right one: the State Department. This morning, we finally heard President Obama’s much anticipated speech on what has been happening in the Middle East and North Africa and his assessment of the role Americans should play in those changes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave him a stellar introduction, which almost gave the President credit for the positive changes in the Arab World. What I found interesting as well was her singling out John Kerry in her introduction.
It was determined early on as I listened to a couple of the major cable channels as they made comments prior to the delivery of the speech, that the President’s address would be mostly for American consumption, though it was expected people in the Arab World may tune in. While I am not sure if this was an isolated incident with my computers, but al-Jazeera’s coverage became ‘not available’, and I wondered if this happened because of a glitch, or that celebrated Mideast journalist Robert Fisk would be doing the commentary. Actually, he was the reason I turned to al-Jazeera, but the error messages persisted.
The President started the speech by setting the stage with perceived successes in Iraq, Afghanistan and the assassination of bin Laden. What he said was not of tremendous value but rather what he did not say: ending combat in Iraq? Why then the presence of 50,000 Americans at the largest ever embassy built in the world in Iraq? Drawing down troops in Afghanistan as we have broken the Taliban’s momentum? Not really Mr. President, not if you have been listening to people on the ground in Afghanistan. The Taliban is part of the social fabric of the country and were never a real threat until Pakistan entered the picture. If we are going to be talking truths, we need to say that public enemy # 1 is Pakistan. And as far as the assassination of bin Laden, the President had the good sense to include in his speech that Osama bin Laden, or what he represented, was hardly relevant anymore in North Africa and the Middle East where al-Qaeda have their own branches in Yemen and the Maghreb.
The President then took us back to the events in Tunisia six months ago with the self-immolation of a fruit vendor. And how that single incident was the start of an irreversible tide in the region for human rights and self-determination, and the end of corruption. But here again, something the President said made no sense:
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 the few.
If such were the case, and Obama was not taken by surprise, as was the rest of the world and so-called experts, why did we deliver gaffes and fumbles during the first few days of the tsunami that hit Tahrir Square? It was very clear for at least the first week of the uprising that our administration was supportive of Mubarak and his regime. The only person that came the closest to predicting the enormity of Arab anger on the streets was then Arab League President Amr Moussa.
Deflection of blame
In the face of these challenges, too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere. The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half century after the end of colonialism. Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression. Divisions of tribe, ethnicity and religious sect were manipulated as a means of holding on to power, or taking it away from somebody else.
Colonialism may have ended in the region a half century ago, but Western meddling in the affairs in countries of the region has been deep and self-serving. By supporting the oppressive leaders of the region in return for access to oil and no armed hostility toward Israel, these very leaders were forced to make the US and Israel the region’s demons and they succeeded quite well. Many of the young and brave rebels of Egypt and other areas are under the age of thirty and were schooled in hating the West. The ones who were fortunate enough to get an education and succeed became the leaders of the revolution. And the antagonism toward Israel is more pronounced today than at any other time in history. Just ask Richard Engel, who spoke to Andrea Mitchell today as she was interviewing Jamie Rubin. Engel demolished Rubin’s spin of how the spontaneous demonstrations in the early Tarhir Square days were free of anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric. It was clear that Rubin had not done his homework, and that Engel is a savvy and superb Mideast correspondent and was at the right place when it was happening.
Obama believes in self-determination
President Obama received applause from the audience at key point in the speech, and it was sparse.
- We have embraced the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator.
- The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region.
- That is true in Yemen, where President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power. And that is true, today, in Bahrain. (we all wondered how long it would take for Obama to get to Bahrain)
- History shows that countries are more prosperous and peaceful when women are empowered.
What makes Libya different than Syria? Why is it that President Obama feels that Qaddafi is on his last leg, but that Assad still has the opportunity to decide to heed the call of his citizens? Why does the President speak in the passive voice when he says that mosques were destroyed in Bahrain? Who destroyed those mosques and burned those Qu’rans? Not a peep on Saudi Arabia. And a whole lot about Iran.
Inevitably, the question of peace in the Middle East came up. And the security of Israel, and Hamas’ refusal to recognize the Jewish State. For the first time however, President Obama said the word ‘occupation’. He has also reiterated that the state of Palestine cannot be created unilaterally or through a UN resolution. Read between the lines. But to play devil’s advocate, have we ever asked Israel to recognize that Palestine once belonged to its indigenous people? They have never acknowledged that.
But I’m convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past.
How is this statement even possible? Israel’s position toward the Palestinians and any criticism whatsoever of its actions, which have been labeled racist and a violation of human rights, is supported by continuous references to the Holocaust. It will not let go of this tragedy, and rise above it, as suggested by Avram Burg, a Knesset member, who wrote a book on the subject. By doing so, it plays on the world’s collective guilt for having let the Holocaust happen. However, we are beginning to see cracks in this collective guilt. Countries in Latin America, Europe, Scandinavia and Africa have pledged to recognize an independent Palestinian stated based on 1967 borders. President Obama echoed this vision during his speech. And what was the response from the Simon Wiesenthal Center?
Israel Should Reject a Return to 1967 ‘Auschwitz’ Borders
Israel may not have that option, as the geopolitical changes in the world will no longer allow for such luxuries.
President Obama also spoke of economic opportunities and assistance for Libya and Egypt as a start. He suggested that the time had come for more equitable wealth distribution in the region, and the creation of jobs through education.
And as always, the President closes with eloquent phrases that point to channeling energies to the future for a more peaceful and just world. He does not exactly say how we are going to get there, but he should have said that America stands to learn a thing or two about ‘not taking it anymore’.