Yesterday, Barack Obama gave a much-hyped speech on current events in the Middle East. Here is a quick reaction to it.
I thought his offering of debt relief, trade, and economic assistance to Egypt and Tunisia was important. Economic stability, and preferably economic progress, must accompany any political reform. In particular, it is essential the economies in both countries are strong enough to give people hope in the reform processes, confidence in the state, and reduce the likelihood of people turning to extremism and radicalism out of sheer desperation. I also thought Obama made a brief but nice case for women’s rights. It was nice to hear Obama acknowledge that the Internet, social media, bloggers, and civil society play vital roles in 21st century world politics.
Otherwise, unfortunately, with his heavy emphasis on banalities like freedom and self-determination, Obama’s speech seemed like a warmed-over presentation largely derived from George W. Bush’s 2005 inaugural speech. The main differences between the Obama and Bush speech are that (1) Obama situated his conversation in the specific context of today’s Middle East and (2) he made a greater effort to highlight the non-military ways the U.S. can support and encourage the proliferation and democracy.
Additionally, I question the timing of his speech. First, as many in the region have pointed out, including our own Dina El-Gebaly, Obama gave his speech on the equivalent of a Friday in the U.S. Here in the States, public speeches and statements are usually given on Fridays in order to hide or bury the content. For on Fridays, people are busy and preoccupied with personal business: making plans for the weekend, traveling, visiting friends and family, and so on. News consumption, so goes the conventional wisdom, is not high on Fridays. This principle similarly applies to the Middle East. But there, the weekend starts on Friday, which means that Thursdays–the day Obama delivered his speech–are not an especially good time to dispense important information. Obama likely did not reach as many people as he could have had he given his speech a different day.
Second, why give this speech before Netanyahu’s address to Congress? Quite frankly, by going first, Obama’s speech, in the end, will probably be overshadowed by Bibi’s. The media will shift their attention to what Netanyahu has to say. And if there are sharp policy differences in the two speeches, the media will fixate on current and future U.S.-Israeli relations.
I also wonder which audience Obama intended to target with this speech. If he sought to target peoples in the Middle East, then he probably did not move them very much. From an American perspective, with a consideration and appreciation of its national interests, it makes sense that the U.S. pressures some countries (say, Iran) for reform more than others (like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Pakistan). For overseas observers in the Middle East, this does not make sense at all. Instead, it renders America’s appeals to freedom seem hollow and makes Washington seem hypocritical. To these people, Obama’s speech did not resolve this problem. He put little pressure on Bahrain, failed to mention Saudi Arabia at all, and did not insist on Assad leaving power in Syria. And just as important to most people in the region, he put little pressure on Israel to come to the bargaining table with the Palestinians.
It is unlikely Obama aimed to speak to the region’s autocrats. Because he spoke so little about them, and because he did not offer any sticks or carrots to change their behavior, the speech remarkably treated the autocrats as an afterthought. Obama essentially left the rogues gallery alone.
With its long review of events of the last few months, perhaps as an effort inform an audience, it seems as if the speech might have been directed at Americans. After all, people in the Middle East do not need the history lesson; they were there for it all! Some were witnesses and some were direct participants. Ultimately, maybe the real reason the speech was given was to reassure wary Americans that the White House is on top of the situation and that the U.S. still matters in a changing Middle East.
So what did you guys think of Obama’s speech? Thumbs up? Thumbs down?
I am particularly interested to hear what our Egyptian followers thought of it. I followed Twitter throughout the day and read comments from dozens of Egyptian bloggers, political activists, and political enthusiasts. Some claimed that many Egyptians were unaware Obama was giving a speech on the Middle East. And those who knew about it reportedly were uninterested in what Obama had to say. The political activist Gigi Ibrahim called his speech "useless." Furthermore, many Egyptians seemed angry at Obama, which I was surprised to hear. Do you think these views are representative of Egyptians? Let us know.