BEIRUT (Reuters) - In an Arab world engulfed in political tumult and, in many cases, economic distress, U.S. President Barack Obama’s words can seem lofty, but limp.
“By the time we found (Osama) bin Laden, al Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands,” Obama declared.
Many Arabs might feel a U.S. agenda that for decades took little account of their own aspirations was also a cul de sac.
The United States, as Obama acknowledged in his speech on the Middle East and North Africa, did not initiate the popular unrest sweeping the region, and its response has wavered.
The fall of entrenched leaders in Egypt and Tunisia this year, and challenges to others in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain, have upset a status quo in which perceived U.S. national interests often outweighed declared democratic ideals.
Obama delivered a ringing pro-democracy speech in Cairo two years ago, but then lost credibility with many Arabs by continuing to back their autocratic rulers, while pursuing longstanding U.S. efforts to protect Israel, thwart Iran’s nuclear drive, combat terrorism and secure oil supplies.
Now he wants to get ahead of the curve — but perhaps not too far, Thursday’s carefully calibrated address suggests.
The United States, he promised, would uphold its familiar policies, “with the firm belief that America’s interests are not hostile to people’s hopes,” but would also change tack by speaking to “the broader aspirations of ordinary people.”
Such words should be music to the ears of many Arabs desperate to get rid of rulers who have denied them freedom and dignity, while enriching themselves and their cronies.
Yet past experience of U.S. policy in the Middle East, along with Obama’s difficulties in wrenching it into new directions, has nurtured skepticism that things will change now.
“Obama says U.S. core interests align with Arab hopes. Well, why didn’t they align for five decades?” tweeted Shadi Hamid, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
The turmoil of the “Arab spring,” which threatens to unseat America’s friends and foes alike, has exposed inconsistencies not just in the policies of the United States and its European allies, but also those of Iran and any number of Arab countries.
Obama, while berating Iran’s intolerance of dissent at home, sought to stifle charges of hypocrisy by acknowledging that U.S. allies such as Yemen and Bahrain had also repressed protesters.
He called on Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, once viewed as an important ally against al Qaeda, to transfer power, but urged the rulers of Bahrain, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, only to free jailed opposition leaders and hold a dialogue.
And he skipped any mention of oil giant Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy which outlaws all public dissent and which sent troops to help crush the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain.
On Syria, Obama suggested that President Bashar al-Assad, who has used tanks, gunfire and mass arrests to smash opponents of his 11-year rule, could yet lead a “transition to democracy.”
This looks implausible. Obama may further harden his line on Assad after imposing sanctions on him and his aides this week. His hesitancy to demand the Syrian leader’s exit may reflect the worries of U.S. allies nearby about chaos if Assad goes.
Jon Alterman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Syria’s neighbors — which include Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey — wanted to see “evolution rather than revolution” there, unlike in Libya, scene of a NATO military intervention. “The neighbors of Libya would very much like to see Muammar Gaddafi gone,” he said.
Arabs, always quick to pounce on double standards, at least the Western variety, will also question Obama’s stated sympathy for Arabs who seek freedom, recalling decades of U.S. acquiescence in Israel’s grip on Palestinians under occupation.
Obama’s failure to make Israel comply with his earlier demand for a halt to West Bank settlement building perhaps inflicted the worst damage to his credibility in Arab eyes.
Few believe Obama has the power to broker peace, even if he has now stated openly the principle underpinning years of U.S. diplomacy — that an Israeli-Palestinian deal must be based on the borders prior to the 1967 war, with agreed land swaps.
More broadly, the spontaneous Arab revolts and the confusion they appear to have created in Washington have pointed up the limits to the power of America, trying to extricate its military from Iraq, and still painfully embroiled in Afghanistan.
“I don’t get why anyone is listening to Obama’s speech,” Amira Khalil, a 23-year-old graduate of the American University in Cairo, wrote on Facebook. “It’s obvious that this one man alone has no control or significance in the Middle East.”
Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Dina Zayed in Cairo and Andrew Hammond in Dubai; Editing in Andrew Heavens