For those hoping President Obama would lay out a grand strategy for the Middle East, his recent speech at the State Department must have been disappointing. There was little attempt to connect the dots and explain why the United States had endorsed regime change in Tunisia and Egypt but not Bahrain, why we chose to intervene in Libya but not Yemen or Syria. The president did not put forward, as some had urged, a new framework for Middle East peace. Instead, the president delivered what was on its surface a much more modest address. But while late in coming, the speech could ultimately prove transformational.
For want of a better term, it could be described as a “directional” speech. In Reagan-esque style, President Obama provided the world with his own interpretation of the recent dramatic events that have swept across the Middle East and North Africa, and the direction in which he saw the winds of history now blowing. The president described how, driven by a hunger for dignity and self-determination, “the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands.” He observed that, “Two leaders have stepped aside. More may follow.” He suggested that “it will be years before this story reaches its end.” But he made it clear how he thought it would end: “that repression will fail, and that tyrants will fall.”
Speaking fittingly from the State Department, he declared a new direction for U.S. policy: that America would align itself squarely behind these new winds of change. “It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.” He offered significant financial assistance to the fledgling democracies of Tunisia and Egypt, while also indicating that U.S. assistance would “extend to nations where transitions have yet to take place.”
And he offered some direction regarding what should and should not be acceptable in this new world – some rules of the road in a region undergoing dramatic change. He spoke of the “moral force of nonviolence” and the right of citizens to free speech and free assembly. He made clear that “the United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region.” Rulers, he suggested, had to heed their citizens’ calls for change and move toward dialogue and democracy. Singling out Syria as an example, he indicated, “President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.”
On the one hand, it was a much more realistic speech than the one President Obama gave in Cairo shortly after taking office. There were no soaring promises this time, like his earlier pledges to close Guantanamo and halt Israeli settlements – pledges that have since haunted his efforts to engage with the Muslim world. This was a speech by a more seasoned American president, more cognizant of the limits of American power and the American presidency.
On the other hand, it may yet prove to be a revolutionary speech, akin to President Reagan’s 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. That, too, was a statement by an American president about the world as it was evolving, in attempt to shape it toward “the world as it should be.” Reagan’s call to Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” was dismissed by many at the time as lacking in seriousness because the United States lacked the leverage to make it happen. But the call carried tremendous moral force. Reading between the lines of the Obama speech, it can be understood as a similar call to those “prying loose the grip of an iron fist” to continue in their struggle. It was also a stern warning to the region’s leaders to heed the voices of their people or stand aside the forces of history. This was the president not as commander-in-chief of the world’s largest army, but as its most inspirational cheerleader, trying to breathe new life into the Arab Spring.
History will judge whether the speech and subsequent U.S. policy succeed in turning noble aspirations into a better tomorrow for the peoples of the Middle East.