In a video debate on bloggingheads.tv, Shadi Hamid discusses President Obama’s Middle East speech, the current situations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and broader implications for U.S. policy.
Shadi Hamid: I thought [Obama’s speech] was a rather pedestrian speech and disappointing in a number of ways, and the last thing I would call it is “ambitious.” […] There was nothing, I mean America always says that it’s on the side of democracy and reform, so all the rhetoric was there, that was nothing new, but what I found surprising was that there were no surprises in this speech. The White House spokesman Jay Carney had been talking about a sweeping, comprehensive speech that really brings all the different strands of U.S. policy together and I didn’t really see that. Where were the bold new initiatives? Where was the vision? Saying that you support democracy in the Middle East is not a vision. There was some criticism of Bahrain; that’s nice. That was welcomed, and I think the Bahraini opposition appreciated that. But what are we going to do about Bahrain? So we have to figure out how we translate that rhetoric, where we say we support democracy, into actual policy changes on the ground. I was waiting to hear a road map, I was waiting to hear how that kind of comes together, and it wasn’t there.
Shadi Hamid: I agree that the goals are ambitious, but America’s role, as presented by the Obama administration, was less so. I didn’t really see, and this is where we get to the discussion about Obama’s general foreign policy orientation and that big New Yorker article; there was this description of Obama leading from behind and I think that’s really an appropriate way of describing how the U.S. now sees itself in the broader community. That we’re going to be humble, we’re going to move back, we’re going to let others lead, it’s up to Arabs to make their own decisions (and of course it is, no one’s disagreeing with that), but what I found to be a little bit disingenuous in a lot of this kind of talk is we aren’t a neutral party. We aren’t innocent bystanders here that are going to just kind of jump in altruistically and what I had actually wanted to see Obama do is acknowledge America’s really, quite frankly, tragic role in the region over the last five decades and say ‘listen (and address this to Arab audiences), we made serious mistakes. We supported autocratic regimes for five decades. We did not support your democratic aspirations and you know what? We were wrong.’ And I had actually written an article for Slate the day before this speech where I called on Obama to actually issue an apology. And I knew of course that wasn’t going to be realistic, but at the very least acknowledgement of that kind of role because if we don’t understand where we’ve been, it’s very hard to correct our past policies and come up with a new, bold, ambitious foreign policy if that is, in fact, what we want to do. And I’ve been an advocate of the U.S. fundamentally re-aligning and re-orienting its policy in the Middle East to be in line with Arab democratic aspirations. But I don’t think we can do that until we really face our past and try to understand why is it that we supported these autocratic regimes in the first place and why is it going to be different this time around.
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