I was invited for a small background chat with a delegation of the American Jewish Committee last week and there it occurred to me that I haven't yet commented on President Obama's Middle East speech. I had a couple of hours on a train and decided to put them to good use and went over the text.
The first remark is more sort of a confession, really. I like the speech, its got all to it and seems much more to the point than Obama's 2009 Cairo speech. It appears to me that there is a stark difference between the Cairo and his more recent speech, the former being far more pragmatic and practically indifferent to the sort of regime that prevailed in the Broader Middle East until last year (though he did remark that representative government would be really really nice). The recent Middle East speech, however, is basically a return to the Bush doctrine, though its tilted in a more defensive direction. George W. Bush's doctrine was build on the promotion of democracy and freedom (remember the famous, I am paraphrasing here, the survival of freedom at home depends on the survival of freedom abroad). In more practical terms, what Bush wanted to achieve was a balance of power in favour of freedom and would hence help advance it. If President Obama's speech established a new doctrine, it would look a lot like the Bush doctrine, only that it is a little less thought through. One might indeed hold different opinions on the legacy of the Bush years, but to me it seems obvious that President Bush believed that democracy had to be elevated in the Middle East in order to prevail and change the region for the better. For all those who have studied neoconservative thought in greater detail, the Obama speech has had some sentences that would have made Woodrow Wilson and Leo Strauss proud. Even to Obama, it now seems, the nature of a foreign regime now does matter. But Obama is far more hesitant when it comes to the role the U.S. would need to play in fostering that change. His speech, unfortunately, hasn't changed that. He has not explained in what way the U.S. would contribute to that change or just how much assistance he thinks would be necessary to enable such change.
However, the speech is important for it realigns Obama's foreign policy with his predecessor's foreign policy or perhaps more importantly with the principles enshrined in American foreign policy for centuries. For a short while, it looked as if Obama might have his own problems with the famous 'vision thing', especially after trying to establish himself as some sort of a post-ideologue. These days are past for now and I am slightly relieved. Moreover, Obama finally concedes the potential of a democratic Iraq: “In Iraq we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy.” And he promises to be Iraq's steadfast partner. I for one find that reassuring and another indication that the new administration is finally beginning to think more long-term about the potential of democracy in the Middle East.
But my major issue is simply one of putting your wallet where your mouth is. A billion dollar in debt relief, another billion in guaranteed borrowing isn't exactly worth mentioning and only a tiny step in stabilising the democracies in North Africa. Let us not forget that Egypt received more than a billion dollars a year in Foreign Military Funding from the U.S. alone with Mubarak in power. A departure from past U.S. strategies vis-à-vis Egypt would have to include at least an idea on how to change that relationship and some indications as to what sort of assistance Washington would want to hand out in the future. Also an increase would have been a nice indication that Obama's administration does indeed welcome the change and wants to actively contribute to it. Kori Shake of the shadow government might have be on to something, when pointing out that the speech is much ado about nothing.