President Barack Obama’s UN speech is a fascinating document. The theme is this: absolutely nothing can go wrong with political change in the Middle East, and the United States helps moderate forces, defined as anyone who isn’t actively trying to kill Americans. The fact that some to many of those revolutionary forces favor killing Americans is outside his purview. And the fact that his policy has supported militantly anti-democratic groups far more than the (far weaker) moderate ones is airbrushed away.
That’s not to say there weren’t good-sounding formulations in his speech. Either due to a learning process, the impact of events, or — most likely — the immediacy of an American presidential election, the voters of which he is actually addressing, Obama hit some of the right notes. The problem is the isolation of this soaring rhetoric from his actual policies. That’s what’s important here — not the discussion about the video and its relationship to the rioting, which has drawn literally all of the attention in analyzing the speech.
(By the way, what’s really amazing and what no one has noted is that almost every word of the speech could have been given by President George W. Bush. Obama has totally accepted the dangerous “neo-conservative” approach to the region, despite the fact that this label makes his supporters foam at the mouth.)
In basic terms, Obama urged the world to support the good people and not the bad people. Why should the U.S. ambassador to Libya be killed? After all, Obama claims that “he supported the birth of a new democracy” and was allegedly in Benghazi to review plans for a new cultural center and a modernized hospital. “Chris was killed in the city he helped to save,” said the president.
Yet the most powerful force in the Middle East views his actions not as saving the city, but as delivering it to U.S. control.
The anti-American riots? Obama described them as follows:
An assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded — the notion that people can resolve their differences peacefully; that diplomacy can take the place of war; and that in an interdependent world, all of us have a stake in working towards greater opportunity and security for our citizens. … Today, we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations.
That passage is unintentionally funny.
For decades, violence and intolerance have been central at the UN, and this will continue to be true. Indeed, the Obama administration has supported many of these forces of violence and intolerance, and in other cases not stood up to them. After all, the minister of railroads in Pakistan, a country which has received billions in aid from the Obama administration, has just offered a reward for murdering an American citizen without fear of any consequences for his regime. Amidst a thousand other examples, that gives a sense of the reality of the contemporary situation compared to Obama’s rhetoric.
Obama says that the United States “has supported the forces of change” in the Arab Spring. But he does not evaluate these forces. The old regimes were tyrannical, but what will replace them? Well, to prove he doesn’t comprehend there is a serious battle within the “forces of change,” Obama actually said: “We again declare that the regime of Bashar al-Assad must come to an end so that the suffering of the Syrian people can stop, and a new dawn can begin.”
A new dawn? Almost a century ago, revolutionaries were overthrowing the czar, widely viewed in the West as the world’s worst tyrant, and it was assumed that whatever happened would mark the beginning of a new dawn. Thirty years ago, those assumptions were repeated with Iran, where the world’s worst tyrant was supposedly being overthrown and the result had to be a “new dawn.” Each of these events generated massive sufferings and several wars.
The implication is that Obama believes that all change is good; that nothing can be worse in the region. This is a very dangerous conclusion, especially about the Middle East. It is not a strategy, but merely a tossing of the dice in a casino where the dice are very crooked indeed.
Going all Abe Lincoln, Obama continued:
I am convinced that ultimately government of the people, by the people and for the people is more likely to bring about the stability, prosperity, and individual opportunity that serve as a basis for peace in our world.
Well, perhaps, but what does that have to do with the actual existing governments? These words are a typical Western view that materialistic interests must triumph, rather than taking into account the power of ideology and the things regimes need to do to stay in power. In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s revolution, said that Western observers thought the upheaval in his country was about the price of watermelons — that is, about how best to achieve prosperity — and that this was ridiculous. One-third of a century later, the Iranian regime is still in power and still following Khomeini’s radical approach. Why should we not expect the same to be true in Egypt, and perhaps soon in Syria?
Indeed, his line in the speech parallels the old view of U.S. leaders: if Yasir Arafat and the PLO could only be given their own entity and offered their own state, turned into responsible politicians who have to fix potholes and provide jobs, there would be peace and stability in the Middle East. This formula has never worked anywhere in the region.
Whatever he truly believes, Obama’s publicly stated assumption is based on the wishful thinking of a community organizer rather than the hardheaded evaluations of a statesman:
Those in power have to resist the temptation to crack down on dissent. In hard economic times, countries may be tempted to rally the people around perceived enemies, at home and abroad, rather than focusing on the painstaking work of reform.
You mean like his policy of mobilizing people to hate the rich? But why shouldn’t they crack down and rally the people against perceived enemies, acting like he does but with the added violence and intolerance of those political cultures? Why does his thinking provide no possibility of that happening? Who is going to make them “resist the temptation” to be aggressive if there is no strong superpower that is going to hold them to account?
After all, this is a president who can praise the new Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Tunisia and Egypt; fall in love with the repressive, hate-inciting regime in Turkey; follow a policy greatly strengthening the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip; ignore the likelihood that he’s promoting the Muslim Brotherhood into power in Syria; and can then say:
It is time to marginalize those who even when not resorting to violence use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel as a central principle of politics. For that only gives cover, and sometimes makes excuses, for those who resort to violence.
“Marginalize”? He has brought them to center stage. He explains:
Burning an American flag will do nothing to educate a child. Smashing apart a restaurant will not fill an empty stomach. Attacking an embassy won’t create a single job.
Of course, that’s the whole point. A leader who cannot bring economic recovery to his country after four years in office, for example, finds demagoguery to be a very useful alternative. That is all the more true in the Middle East. Burning an American flag indoctrinates a child into certain beliefs; smashing apart a restaurant makes people who have no jobs feel good.
At times, Obama’s statements read so differently in the Middle East that it is laughable:
In less than two years, we have seen largely peaceful protests bring more change to Muslim-majority countries than a decade of violence. Extremists understand this. And because they have nothing to offer to improve the lives of people, violence is their only way to stay relevant. They do not build, they only destroy.
Well, no, in fact the smart extremists understand that they found a useful tactic for seizing power — and with the help of the United States. They want to go step by step now to build dictatorships and to wipe out everyone they don’t like at home and abroad. The ‘’less smart” extremists are too impatient, but their very impatience pressures their colleagues to go further and faster.
If one listened to Obama’s speech, one would think that this was a man who gave strong support to the opposition in Iran and to the moderate democratic forces struggling in Lebanon and Egypt (most U.S.-backed programs to help organize politically in Egypt went to the Muslim Brotherhood) and who backed those fighting for a Syria that isn’t an Islamist dictatorship.
Not at all. He has done virtually nothing for those forces. Nor has his government really done anything material to protect the rights of women and Christians in the Middle East. When he says, “Those are the men and women that America stands with; theirs is the vision we will support,” it has no relationship with reality.
For example, Obama said:
Together, we must stand with those Syrians who believe in a different vision — a Syria that is united and inclusive; where children don’t need to fear their own government, and all Syrians have a say in how they are governed — Sunnis and Alawites; Kurds and Christians. That is what America stands for; that is the outcome that we will work for.
Meanwhile, his government is overseeing programs that distribute arms to either the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists. It organized a Syrian opposition council dominated by the Brotherhood. It is guaranteeing a Syria in which Alawites and Christians will be massacred; in which Kurds will face an assault on their region; and which will not be united, inclusive, or non-scary for children.
As I have said, there are many fine sentiments expressed on Iran, Israel-Palestinian issues, economic development, minority rights, religious equality, and freedom of speech. Yet these points have no relationship with what this president has actually done in the Middle East. For example, he has not made a single effective action, backed by real power and pressure, to defend the rights of women or Christians, including in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States had military forces and potentially effective influence.