Many things were missing from President Obama’s Middle East speech, but one of the most concerning was its inability, or unwillingness, to clarify America’s contested role in a rapidly changing region. Obama and other senior U.S. officials have repeatedly said that the Arab revolts are “not about us.” But, inevitably, they are. For decades, the U.S. supported autocratic regimes in the region. This has long been a central Arab grievance.
Considering this history of U.S. involvement, some of the language Obama used was odd. For example: “We must proceed with a sense of humility. It is not America that put people into the streets of Tunis and Cairo – it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and must determine their outcome.” This sort of language is likely to strike Egyptians as disingenuous. The United States was not, after all, a neutral actor. As Emad Gad of the Al Ahram Center for Political Strategic Studies pointed out after the speech: “Washington took a position against the Egyptian revolution and supported [Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak until his final days in office.” According to a recent Pew poll, only 22 percent of Egyptians believe the United States played a positive role in their uprising. In the same poll, more Egyptians, remarkably, said they approved of both al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden than they did the United States.
Obviously, these sentiments are not solely tied to America’s support for Mubarak, but it is a major factor contributing to still considerable mistrust toward the United States. As I argued in a recent piece for Slate, Obama’s speech presented an opportunity to come to terms with the past and acknowledge to Arab audiences that the United States, too often, sided with regimes over their citizens.
The closest Obama came to doing this was when he said, “there will be times when our short-term interests do not align perfectly with our long-term vision of the region.” But a much more forthright discussion of how and why American interests and ideals clash, as they so often have, was what was needed on Thursday. As Jennifer Lind, scholar on the politics of apology, writes, the act of apologizing – in its willingness to affirm the pain of others – can be critical in the restoration of dignity.
It was unlikely that Obama would ever go so far as to apologize to an Arab audience. But loudly affirming America’s commitment to supporting Arab democracy, when the reality – as Arabs perceive it – is that the United States has backed, and continues to back, repressive autocracies returns us to an old narrative and an old problem. During this “Arab spring,” the uneasy tension between ideals and interests has not, as some had hoped, been resolved. During Obama’s speech, the inconsistencies and contradictions were still there. And as long as they remain, they will continue to undermine American influence and credibility at this critical moment. The Arab world, it turns out, is changing much faster than we are.