Another missed opportunity. That seems to be more or less the consensus in the Middle East about the speech U.S. president Obama's held on Thursday. Not that the expectations were that high after Obama failed so miserably to follow up on the promises he made in his 2009 Cairo speech. One of the first things that could be said about it, was that it took Obama no less than five months before he even adressed the Arab world about the so called 'Arab Spring', a spring that - let's put it politely - was not really welcomed all that enthousiastically by the Americans when it started in the first place. In fact it is still rather doubtful to which extend the U.S is ready to embrace the changes that are taking place. The big question mark after all is, whether the U.S. is prepared to switch from the comfortable situation that it had faithfull client-leaders in most places who were used to act upon most of Washington's wishes, to a policy whereby it eventually will allow the peoples of the Middle East to make their choices themselves.
Obama did not take away the doubts.His remarks about the U.S. attitude in past and present were just too shallow and did not indicate a clear break with the past. This is what he said
The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds. For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel's security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.
We will continue to do these things, with the firm belief that America's interests are not hostile to people's hopes; they're essential to them. We believe that no one benefits from a nuclear arms race in the region, or al Qaeda's brutal attacks. We believe people everywhere would see their economies crippled by a cut-off in energy supplies. As we did in the Gulf War, we will not tolerate aggression across borders, and we will keep our commitments to friends and partners.
Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind. Moreover, failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense. Given that this mistrust runs both ways –- as Americans have been seared by hostage-taking and violent rhetoric and terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of our citizens -– a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world.
He also said that the U.S. supports the changes, but was too less specific to convince:
The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders -– whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.
And we support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.
Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest. Today I want to make it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.
Let me be specific. First, it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy. That effort begins in Egypt and Tunisia, where the stakes are high -– as Tunisia was at the vanguard of this democratic wave, and Egypt is both a longstanding partner and the Arab world's largest nation. Both nations can set a strong example through free and fair elections, a vibrant civil society, accountable and effective democratic institutions, and responsible regional leadership. But our support must also extend to nations where transitions have yet to take place.
As far as actual policy was concerned, he mentioned the killing of civilians in Libya, the situation in Syria, where president Assad is 'faced with a choice between reform or make way', Yemen where president Saleh 'should follow through on his commitment to transfer power', and Bahrain about which he said that
..... we have insisted both publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens, and we will -- and such steps will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail. (Applause.) The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.
That was a slap on the royal Bahraini wrist (which is certain not to have pleased the king), but apart from this Obama failed to come up with more concreet steps concerning the actual situation. No plans to withdraw the Fifth Fleet from Bahrain, no shifting of aid packages for Yemen, no mention of other countries like Oman or
What he did do was offereing economic assistance for Egypt and Tunisai. But Egypt was less than pleased with his offer to wave debts in the order of $ 1 one billion and another one billion in the form of loan garantees. In Cairo it was said that Egypt had expected much more. Also Egyptians and Tunisians alike were somewhat unpleasantly surprised that Obama seemed to tie American assistance to plans for plans to speed up economic growth, which smelled of a call to further 'liberalise' their economies. And liberalizing, meaning more privatisations, open up their markets even more for global trade and thereby risking further devaluations of their currencies with all that entails for the cost of living for their for the most part rather poor citizens, is not what most Egyptian or Tunisian economists see as a solution for the short term.
But what was universally denounced in the Middle East was the total absence of any new steps to end the current impasse in the Israeli Palestinian conflict and the fact that the 'set of universal rights' and freedoms that the U.S. was supposed to support as far as other Middles Eastern peoples were concerned, were conspicuously absent when he spoke about the Palestinians. He went even further than that and said that
For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state... by which he effectively signaled that the U.S.will block both peaceful protests which are linked to BDS, as well as attempts by the Palestinbian Authority to gain recognition at the U. N.
About Hamas and the reconcilitaion between Hamas and Fatah Obama said:
..... the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel: How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse...
by which he made it clear that he follows the Israeli lead and will refuse to deal with a PA that includes Hamas, unless Hamas subjects itself to the qualifications that the Quartet has set.
One point, however, that drew some attention was his remark that
We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.
This was somewhat remarkable because the U.S. administration - as we know from the leaked so called 'Palestine Papers' - refused to allude to the 1967 borders during the last rounds of talks that were led by George Mitchell, although the 'green line' had always been the 'point de départ' in the universally recognized Resolution 242uncil. But attention was also drawn to this remark because Israeli prime minister Netanyahu reacted angrily from his plane on the way to Washington, and let Obama know that he 'expected' the U.S. President to stick to a letter George Bush sent in 2004 to the then Israeli prime minister Sharon, in which Bush expressed support for the position that Israel would annex the 'population centers' beyond this border, i.e. the settlement blocs. Netanyahu's reaction seemed the upbeat for aa stormy meeting with Obama, whose administration never went so far as to adopt Bush's stand in this respect. But then, at the same time, Obama's formulation about 'mutually agreed swaps' provided ample room for a most flexible handling of the subject.
After all also this is hardly more than a storm in a glass of water, or rather the ususal way in which Netranyahu seems to make clear who is the one who dictates the order of the day in meetings like this one between the U.S. and Israel with which it shares an unshakable bond. So that it might be appropriate to conclude with some remarks from an editorial by The National, a quality paper in Abu Dhabi, which seems to express the common feeling in the rehion rather well:
In the Middle East peace process, where the US truly can lead - where Washington has named itself mediator - it has been unwilling to act. In this speech, Mr Obama made it clear that the United States would not be a neutral broker and it would block international pressure on Israel.
He reaffirmed the 1967 borders as the outlines of two states, and that Jerusalem and the right of return need to be resolved, but refused to acknowledge why two years of negotiations have been meaningless: Israel has declined every overture while building every roadblock it could. Mr Obama's demand for renewed talks simply resets to the "status quo" that he said was untenable.