What did President Obama’s address on the Middle East accomplish? His goal was to expand America’s influence in the region and show the people there that the United States and its president identified with their struggle for freedom. But what did Obama actually accomplish with his speech? The first reports coming out of the Arab world make it clear that they aren’t buying what he’s selling.
As today’s New York Times roundup of opinion from the Arab world illustrates, Obama’s equivocation during the crucial moments when unrest was spreading means more to them than the fancy words he spoke at the State Department.
Some Americans, particularly neoconservatives, took satisfaction in the fact that Obama backtracked on his past indifference to democracy promotion as well as his opposition to President Bush’s embrace of this agenda, albeit without giving them or Bush any credit for having been right all along. But the Arab world views things a bit differently. All they see is a president who sat by and watched them bleed for their freedom in Egypt and Tunisia and now also in Syria without doing much, if anything, to help them. And they understand that it was France, not the United States that took the lead in the one Arab country where the West did intervene and that it was Obama’s dithering that prevented a quick defeat of Qaddafi. His professions of support for their freedom are considered either insincere or just too late.
Even more to the point, what comes across most from accounts of Arab reaction to Obama’s speech is the fact that not many people there care much about him. Whatever fascination they felt for him in the past seems to have faded. That has to be a difficult pill for a man who sees himself in near messianic terms. His carefully parsed appeals to democracy and rights would have made a difference had he started speaking this way back in 2009 when his reaction to the repression of Iranian dissidents (which he properly acknowledged in his speech as the true start of the regional protests) was muted.
Nor are the Arabs excited much by the last portion of his speech that significantly tilted America towards the Palestinians and away from its ally Israel. Though his words will be used to help fuel efforts to further isolate Israel, he didn’t go far enough to please Arab opinion. Obama did manage to alienate and weaken Israel but he will get little or no credit for this from Arab governments or public opinion.
This epitomizes his inept approach to foreign policy during his first two and a half years in the White House. Once again he succeeded in alienating friends while failing to impress those who are skeptical about the United States. It was a pointless speech by a man who has achieved a unique record of failure on foreign policy.