era of self-determination
Obama’s Middle East Address
31 May 2011
■ Mohammadbagher Forough
President Obama’s recent Middle East speech merits serious investigation for one particularly ironic reason, namely, that it went almost unnoticed in the Middle East and that you could not but observe that it proved to be a nonevent. Compared with his 2009 Cairo speech which met with ubiquitous enthusiasm and media coverage when his promise of change was still fresh and untested, this speech fell completely flat as that promise has been put to the practical test of time and the results have not been particularly impressive.
In this piece, I would like to argue that Obama’s failure to attract the attention of Middle-Easterners is not necessarily a bad thing for those people; in point of fact, it does bode well for them on a plane unheard of in recent memory, i.e., the plane of action. In what follows, I will unpack why that is.
I. The Negatives
As was easily predictable, the speech was full of vacuous rhetorical truisms, selective praises and rebukes or what have you, which is expected from politicians generally and more so from Obama who is a very glib one at that.
It praised the ‘brave freedom-loving people of Tunisia and Egypt’, but failed to admit that the US and its allies supported those dictators against those very brave people until the tides had turned against the dictators and their deposition was a matter of hours or days only, and that one of the reasons why such dictatorships survived so long in the first place was the regular financial and military support of the US and its allies (such as France) for the Egyptian and Tunisian dictators.
It selectively (but rightfully) reproached in very harsh terms ‘unfriendly dictators’ of Libya, Iran, and Syria who brutalize their people, but failed to address the Bahraini and Yemeni ‘friendly dictators’ in equally critical terms. What is more, it failed to even mention the Saudi and Kuwaiti situations where dissenters and democratic activists were crushed down savagely.
It talked of the lack of economic neoliberalization as one of the reasons that had instigated the uprisings and revolutions in the region, but willfully ignored the fact that one of the major reasons why Egyptians and Tunisians got fed up with their situation and took to the streets was the devastating consequences of neoliberal economic policies in those countries implemented by those dictators, policies that had not only loaded the dictators’ pockets and brought the workers down to a slavish status but had actually caused poverty and unemployment rates to go through the ceiling in the long run.
In terms of the Palestine-Israel issue, the speech made an apparently controversial and promising remark by saying that a return to the 1967 border is the solution to the problem; but the promise faded away when Obama added the clause ‘with mutually agreed borders and land swaps’, which means Israel has a veto on Palestinian ‘rights’ and on whatever agreement deal the Palestinians and the overwhelming majority of the international community strive toward.
In other words, the implication was that things can go on as they have for decades with Israel and the US unilaterally vetoing all the legitimate rights of the Palestinians and demands of the international community. This implication was not comprehended by some lobbyists; Obama had therefore to clear things up in his address to AIPAC three days after the speech, and say explicitly what he had implicated in the Mid-East speech: ‘there was nothing original in my proposal’ and that the return to 1967 was not what he had meant.
Along the same lines, Obama legitimized once more the new discourse that is being propagated by Israel that it is a ‘Jewish’ state and Israel is ‘the homeland of the Jewish people’, deliberately not taking stock of more than one million non-Jewish citizens in Israel (more or less 20% of the whole population) who would be relegated to the status of second class citizens by this discourse.
Could anyone in their right minds possibly imagine a state such as the American state itself claiming to be a “Christian state” and America being “the homeland of the Christians”? Probably not! Not even in the theocracies of the Middle East can you find a dictator who would claim his country to be one for the Muslim population alone, not in rhetoric certainly.
People fully understood what was missing in the speech and what it means to have friendly rhetoric and do the opposite in practice
And the negative list could, to one’s chagrin, go on and on. People fully understood what was missing in the speech and what it means to have friendly rhetoric and do the opposite in practice, which is why the speech fell on deaf ears for good reasons. But, so much for the negative!
II. The Positive
There was one tremendously positive aspect to the cold reception the speech met with. People in that region have ‘acted’ on their own, and have achieved considerable results, and can afford to ignore empty rhetoric, be it from their dictators or Obama. They have taken the active role in the still unfolding scenarios that are taking place. Politicians, including Obama, are forced to ‘react’ to what they do. This is a major achievement.
This confession in Obama’s speech was explicit when he had to emphasize one factor that was predominant in the recent events in the region: ‘self-determination.’ We can’t judge whether Obama enjoyed or detested this confession. One thing is however clear: it was unprecedented.
For decades the dominant discourse of the American administrations has been centered on the question ‘how should we influence or change the politics of the region?’, i.e., the active stance that included invading countries, regime change, nation-building, and such. Obama was the first American president in recent memory who was effectively forced to change the discourse and say “the question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds’, i.e., the reactive stance. Things are happening there and America should react to them.
The Middle Eastern masses have paid a huge price to impose this change of tone and discourse on the American administration. For decades, many Middle-Easterners were quick to blame others especially the West and more so the US (not without some legitimate reasons) for the miseries that had befallen them. It was a mournful passive/reactive stance. But the tides have turned.
The new uprisings and revolutions have for the first time given the people of the region the active stance of those who by themselves and against overwhelming odds bring down despotic regimes (some of which supported by superpowers such as the US) and force those very superpowers to step back and reflect upon the question as to how to respond and ‘react’ to how those people ‘act’. This is the positive news ‘for the people’ in the nonevent that was Obama’s speech.
There is however a long way to go. The majority of the countries in that region are still under dictatorial conditions. But the trend has been set. If there is anything to be had from the recent revolutions, it is the lesson that people can set out to ‘act’ and bring about real change, and when they succeed in doing that, they don’t need to be particularly interested in reactive clichés and empty rhetoric from anyone. It is a legitimate luxury for the people to be able to ignore a speech like that by the most powerful man in the world (militarily speaking), and they deserve to be congratulated for that.
کلیدواژه ها: Barack Obama, Middle East, United States | Print | نشر مطلب
Indeed Obama was very selective of his rebukes for those governments who have violated human rights. His speech really amounts to nothing which is why people in the Middle East don’t listen to him anymore.