Two years ago in Cairo, Barack Obama had everything going for him as he addressed the global Muslim community as new leader of powerful America; someone who had been elected to help bring about change not just domestically but in foreign policy as well, particularly in that region of the world where there was so much at stake for the United States: the Middle East.
President Obama had a great start, if only symbolically, by using the traditional greeting of Assalaamu alaykum as the salutation to begin his address. However, that probably was also the high point of his speech. The entire address conveyed a tone of realism sweetened with hope which did not set particularly well with those in the Middle East who had anticipated, at the very least, a more conciliatory move by the US towards the region; definitely a foreign policy change in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, one that would bring the US closer, if not in tune, with the international community as reflected in the voting throughout the years in the United Nations.
But that wasn’t about to happen, and it did not happen. Instead, it was left to the diminished candle of hope to continue flickering; a candle which has now become nothing but a gob of melted wax.
If the Cairo speech was important for Obama early in his presidency, the speech on Thursday, May 19, was critical for the US to enunciate clearly and definitively what its policies are, once and for all, after months of floundering during the period being called Arab Spring.
That was not to be; and if this articulate American president had disappointed his Muslim audience two years ago, this time apathy, skepticism and distrust had replaced hope… except for one last ray: Obama’s statement that Palestine must be based in the 1967 borders. That statement is causing shockwaves in political US, and early readings suggest that it was a major faux pas, domestically, in political not social terms; one that Obama will have to back out of quickly if he wants to remain a viable candidate for his party in the 2012 presidential elections.
In his speech there was not even a hint of apology for America’s blatant support of tyrannical regimes as long as those governments were friendly to the US – so Syria’s Assad and Libya’s Gaddafi could be thrown under the bus – and its interests in the region. Obama stated those interests to be countering terrorism; halting the spread of nuclear weapons (just Iran’s, not Israel’s); security of the region to permit the free flow of commerce; and, of course, Israel’s security by pursuing an Arab-Israeli peace. A simpler and more honest approach would have named those interests as oil and Israel’s designs, and demands, on what Palestine must be to meet Israel’s security concerns.
More of a realist in his Cairo speech, on Thursday Obama proved to be more of an idealist. Nonetheless, he tried to please everyone – specifically the governments of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – by blaming Iran’s interference in the region. And he made promises of economic help to Egypt and Tunisia where the US Congress is sure to attach some strings, such as the political path those countries take; perhaps an insult to democracy, but Palestinian Parliamentary elections in 2006 attest to that.
The highlight of this speech, or rather the most significant statement made to the Muslim community in general, and the Palestinians in particular, was not written in the speech, but something which took place six days earlier, on May 13. George Mitchell did tender his resignation from the post of Special Envoy to the Middle East on that day. One would guess that the White House probably tried to dissuade Mr. Mitchell from such untimely act – why not wait two or three weeks – but this “honest George” knew the eloquence of his deed, the importance of his resignation before Netanyahu does his sales pitch before a joint session of Congress on May 24. I cannot help but think that Mitchell saw this president, who had sent him on a mission 28 months earlier, as having less sway with Congress than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; and that his work and dedication all this time had been but a façade for the world to see, an effort in vain. So his resignation was a discreet silent way of expressing his denunciation of Israel’s PM unwillingness to negotiate other than on his terms.
The next few days in Washington with Mr. Netanyahu around should tell us in an unequivocal way whether there has been a change in foreign policy, or whether the American president continues to be the new master of cosmetic eloquence who has committed yet another political faux pas.