Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, May 20, 2011

Reaction to Obama's Speech

Brad made a quick and interesting analysis on Obama's speech on Middle East and I concur with many of his points. There are some things that I want to add, though.

First, let us talk about Israel. I think that's a stupid topic to bring in. It is true that Obama had to do or say something in light of George Mitchell's resignation as U.S. envoy and the arrival of Bibi in Washington. Still, it was horrible timing. Like Brad mentioned, it was before Bibi's speech in Congress, but I would go further by saying that it was tacky.

By arguing about the need to go from the 1967 lines, Obama put Bibi on the spot, likely causing him to be defensive. It is true that Israel shares the blame for the collapse of the peace talks. On the other hand, it is not a good idea to publicly force an agenda on a guest, especially a leader of a close ally.  The U.S. should not do that to a guest, unless the visit is specifically to address those issues. Instead, Washington should use this visit as a opportunity to talk, to understand more about Israel's viewpoints, and then try to reach an agreement. Why try to impose its own terms on Netanyahu?

Second, Obama seems not to understand that the Jasmine Revolution is not about Israel. The revolution happened because people were tired of old gerontocrats who were completely out of touch from the rest of population. He scored some points earlier in the speech by skewering Iran and Syria, though people would obviously ask why he did not mention Bahrain and Saudi Arabia at all.

Talking about Israel distracted the entire speech. The take home point is not whether the U.S. supports the Jasmine Revolution, but the talking heads will all mention the Israeli-Palestinian problem, which exactly what happened. The Egyptians think that for Obama, they are just chopped liver, an introduction to the main show, which is about showcasing Obama's desire to get a second Nobel Peace Prize as the Messiah of the Israel-Palestinian peace effort.

Obama would have done better by briefly mentioning that he hoped recent developments in the Middle East would also bring a positive impact on Israeli-Palestinian problem, then change the subject, and move into what the U.S. would do to foster the developments in the Middle East, aside from throwing general scraps as usual, such as debt forgiveness. Debt forgiveness never works if the politicians remain idiotic and keep fattening their wallets while at the same time refusing to engage in a painful reform to make their economy more efficient.  Does anyone remember moral hazard?

If Obama hopes that his speech will rescue his moribund popularity in the Middle East, then he is in for a rude awakening. He had messed up greatly from the beginning of the revolution. He alienated publics for not doing anything to support them in the early days of revolution. Then after the dictators were toppled, the US still does nothing in concrete to assist them. Just watch Al Jazeera to see how the U.S. is completely in a world far away from the problems on the Arab street. People on Arab streets see how the U.S. seems to be gung-ho to bomb Qaddafi to kingdom come to ensure that precious oil keeps flowing from Libyan refineries, while at the same time, America fails to realize that there's a massacre in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain!

He also alienated the autocrats for throwing Mubarak under the bus.

At the same time, he angers the Israelis, as Obama seems to be more interested in getting fawning receptions in Cairo, Benghazi, and other places. The Israelis will believe that the easiest thing for Obama to do so was to simply portray Israel as the irresponsible ones. In a year or two, there still will not be any progress on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, because the Israelis don't think Obama is a honest broker. The Palestinians will keep stonewalling because they believe that Obama will do everything to get Israel to make concessions. What a great plan to keep them engaged! When the peace talks continues to stall and the revolution fails to fix people's lives, everyone will be back at the Israeli pinata anyway.

To sum it up, Obama's speech completely missed the mark. Instead of showcasing America's desire to see the Jasmine Revolution be successful, the speech will be remembered as Obama's attempt to force Bibi Netanyahu to bow to his wishes.

It's no wonder that when the Fox Network contacted Mark Regev, Netanyahu's spokesman, he "sounded as though he had been slapped in the face."

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