In Middle East Speech: Where was Obama’s Passion, Purpose, Plan?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The White House promised a “sweeping” speech. We got nothing of the sort. What was perhaps most surprising about President Barack Obama’s much-awaited speech on the Middle East was that there were no surprises.

The speech was supposed to offer a corrective to criticisms that Obama lacks vision on the Middle East. Instead, it promised more of the same — a largely ad-hoc policy that reacts to events, rather than trying to shape them. Obama had an opportunity to reframe the debate over America’s role in a troubled region. That opportunity was squandered.

To be sure, Obama affirmed that it is U.S. policy to support reform across the region. He spoke of the importance of Egypt’s transition to democracy. But where was the road map for getting there? How does the U.S. plan to stop Syria’s brutal crackdown, which has claimed many hundreds of lives? Crucially, Obama offered pointed criticisms of growing repression in Bahrain, host of the Navy’s Fifth Fleet. But, again, there were no new policy prescriptions.

An “Arab Spring” that began with great promise has now turned into something more sinister. We are in the midst of a region-wide counter-revolution, led by U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime has made it clear that it will stop at nothing to preserve the status quo and use its largesse to prop up unpopular regimes. Yet, remarkably, Saudi Arabia was not mentioned even once in a 45-minute speech.

Other oversights or outright omissions are equally troubling. America has had a complex, sometimes tragic history in the Middle East, with successive administrations funding and arming Arab dictators. In a recent article for Slate, I argued that Obama should apologize to Arabs for that support and begin the slow, difficult work of aligning American policies with American ideals. Of course, in the real world of politics, this was unlikely.

But Obama even failed to so much as acknowledge America’s past mistakes. President Bush did precisely that in November 2003, when he said: “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe.”

During this most recent Arab Spring, the United States was, once again, behind the curve. It was slow to support democratic change in Egypt; and even slower in Tunisia. The United States decided to support military intervention in Libya only as Qaddafi’s forces approached Benghazi. A massacre was averted, but perhaps only by hours. In his speech, Obama held out hope that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might still lead a democratic transition. Those hopes, though, were dashed long ago.

Perhaps the problem with Obama’s approach to the new Middle East runs deeper. He may very well understand the gravity of the changes we are seeing. But he does not seem to be moved by it the way others are.

The passion and purpose — the sense of seizing a historic moment that may not come again — have been lacking. In place of bold gestures, we have a president who has insisted on care and deliberation. There is, to be sure, a time for caution. Today’s speech was not one of those times.