The Arab reaction to the president’s Middle East speech as reported by the Christian Science Monitor is reminiscent of the responses to the failing Mubarak: they’ve seen Obama give, now they want to see him give some more. “While those involved in Arab uprisings welcomed Obama’s support, others were disappointed with his failure to apologize for US support for Middle East dictators.” Once you start giving to the crowd, you can’t stop giving.
In giving his speech the president may have done three things, none of which he quite intended. First, he has essentially denounced as evil and misguided, though in a lukewarm fashion, decades of American policy in the Middle East. Second, he has delegitimized Israel, at least within the context of its current borders. Third, he has by implication suggested that the rule of many of his allies is undemocratic and, in consequence, declared himself King of Arabia. He has assumed ultimate responsibility for the political development of the region now. He’s declared it broken. Now he owns it.
When a regime of long standing makes unprecedented admissions of culpability and promises reform, the first reaction of revolutionaries is to assume that ancien regime is doomed. Those who listened to Obama’s speech may not be convinced of his new beginning, but they most assuredly scent the coming of an end.
What some Arabs will be looking for now is street cred. The Los Angeles Times reported from Cairo that listeners to the president’s speech said it went far, but didn’t go far enough. “People seem to have lost confidence in the good words Obama said when he was here,” said Aziz. “I think it was us Egyptians, Tunisians and Arabs who forced Obama to finally start reaching out to the region and support freedoms and peoples’ will. He knows that it is a reality now and that he will lose the whole region’s support if he doesn’t do so.”
Having declared himself on the side of the demonstrators and no longer the defender of the status quo, many of the participants in the Arab Street will ask Obama to make his bones. And the only way President Obama can prove that he’s on their side is to throw one or two dictators their way. The Bush plan would be to throw Khamenei and Assad to the crowds first. But that appears to be off the table, because he wants to talk to them, so in the Obama variation the alternative appears to be giving only America’s allies in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel, the heave-ho. When it is too hard to ditch your enemies, ditch those who trusted you.
It’s a potential recipe for disaster, not in the least because it can backfire on the president. In a region where losing means winding up on the end of the hangman’s rope, you can bet your bottom dollar that regimes will fight for survival. That means anything can happen. Will the president be ready to finish what he started? He had better be because once fairly begun it is hard to stop. An old Chinese proverb said: “He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.” John Kennedy added his own embellishment to the theme: “In the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding on the back of the tiger ended up inside.”
That advice has lost none of its relevance today. President Obama’s words are not just speeches. They communicate policy. They set wheels in motion, if not in American bureaucracies, then elsewhere in the world where listeners react to them and make plans of their own. They can create a momentum that must either be seen through or lead to bust. He may be gone from office in several years, but the consequences of his words will outlive his term. Will there be a new Middle East, with all its minorities and confessions living in relative harmony? Or will it be bust?
I think the president believes he can achieve a nuanced outcome by taking both sides of history in the Middle East; to preserve U.S. security interests while spreading democracy — all largely achieved by the State Department. Maybe he will succeed. But the worst case scenario is that this will lead to a complete unraveling of the U.S. position in the region coupled with an unwillingness and inability to defend any red line whatsoever. Consider: if Plan A fails, what on earth is Plan B?
There was a young lady of Riga,
Who rode with a smile on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.
Sometimes the tiger thinks differently