By George Grant
When President Obama delivered his Cairo Speech to the Muslim world in June 2009, his embarrassment at the foreign policy pursued by his predecessor was clear. He spoke of America’s engagement in Afghanistan in almost resentful terms; acknowledged the “controversy about the promotion of democracy”; and was explicit in his refutation of interventions overseas: “Let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other”.
This was, in essence, a 6,000-word apology for American foreign policy under George W. Bush dressed up as an olive-branch to the Muslim world.
What’s more, he meant it. Shortly before the Iranian presidential elections held later that same month, President Obama sent a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reassuring him of America’s commitment to improving U.S.-Iranian relations. When the Islamic regime took to the brutalisation and murder of pro-democracy protesters in the election’s aftermath, Obama responded in the following terms: “It is not productive, given the history of U.S. and Iranian relations to be seen as meddling in Iranian elections.”
And this new ‘realist’ approach wasn’t just confined to the Middle East.
The President abandoned Nyi Nyi Aung – the Burmese-American pro-democracy activist who was tortured in the Burmese junta’s prison cells. He disinvited the Dalai Lama from a state visit to Washington in order to appease China. He lamely spoke of bearing “witness” to the savage repression of the Green Revolution in Iran. And his muted criticism of many African dictators, such as Robert Mugabe, all derived from a new policy of American ‘engagement’ with its enemies.
Fast-forward to 19th May 2011 and the shift in emphasis is unmistakeable.
Whatever his other faults, President Obama has clearly learned that the world’s dictators do not respond to olive-branches and soaring rhetoric in the way that ecstatic crowds in democratic countries do. They just take advantage.
Clearly, the unprecedented upheavals that have swept across North Africa and the Middle East since the start of 2011 have forced all Western leaders to re-examine their foreign policy assumptions. Phrases like ‘democracy-promotion’ are back in fashion, and both the U.S. and European leaders seem to have recognised that these oil-rich Arab kleptocracies are not the reliable guarantors of Western interests that so many thought they were.
Whilst acknowledging the importance of American energy security in the Middle East, he also maintained “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… The status quo is not sustainable. Societies held together by fear and repression ma offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder”.
He outlined a series of U.S. initiatives, primarily economic, to assist development in both countries including much-needed debt relief for Egypt. If this has the makings of a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, then all the better. Clearly, more will need to be done to ensure that the new governments in Egypt and Tunisia live up to the expectations of their people. Democracy is not synonymous with the mere holding of elections; what these countries need most is the upbuilding of civil society institutions and core infrastructure. The U.S. should be at the fore of guaranteeing that all foreign aid is spent wisely and productively.
Critics will point to the president’s early foot-dragging over Libya. Yet the U.S. has ultimately been integral to the enforcement of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973. Moreover, the President took yesterday as an opportunity to reaffirm U.S. support for regime change.
Even Iraq is now presented as a positive example that other Arab countries would do well to follow. This would have been unthinkable in Cairo in 2009, where the effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein was nothing more than a misadventure and stain on America’s conscience.
On Syria, where the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad has so far murdered up to 1,000 people and detained 10,000 more, the President was at once incomprehensible and uncompromising: “President Assad now has a choice”, Obama said.“He can lead that transition [to democracy] or he can get out of the way”. Quite how Obama expects Assad to lead a transition to democracy, a man who leads a party with its roots in fascism and who has engaged in executions, arbitrary arrests and artillery bombardments on his own cities, is unfathomable.
On Yemen and Bahrain, the president charted a more cautious path. He criticised their failure to heed the demands of their people, but continued to refer them as America’s ‘friends’. Saudi Arabia, which invaded neighbouring Bahrain to put down that country’s Shi’ite rebellion, regarded by some as an Iranian catspaw, was not even mention. Old habits die hard.
On the much-discussed subject of Israel-Palestine, the President’s position was the least altered. Yes, he avowed America’s commitment to the 1967 borders as the basis for any final status agreement – the first for any administration. However this has been the conventional wisdom held by Israel, the Palestinian authority and, indeed the United States for some time without express articulation, a fact made abundantly clear by Al Jazeera’s release last February of ten years’ worth of peace negotiation documents. The President affirmed America’s “unshakeable” commitment to Israel’s security and defined the ally as both a “Jewish state” and a “homeland for the Jewish people,” making the U.S. position on one Palestinian sticking-point unmissable. He also asked the central question of the recent Fatah – Hamas reconciliation accord: how can Israel make peace with a party that refuses to recognise its existence?
This speech marked a significant development in U.S. foreign policy. The Arab Spring seems to have given President Obama new confidence in aligning with exactly the kind of values-led foreign policy that he staked his candidacy in 2008 on dismantling. If that means that America has refound confidence in itself, then for that alone, this speech is worth welcoming.