By William Fisher
President Obama’s recent speech on the Middle East was intended, finally, to put the U.S. on “the right side of history.” After months of fence-sitting, the president was going to throw the full moral weight of the United States behind the Arab Spring.
How he did depends a lot on where you’re sitting. In the U.S., reception to his remarks appears to have been largely positive – even among some of the human rights groups that have been consistently critical of what they see as the double-standard applied to different nations based on U.S. strategic interests.
“I thought the speech did a good job of clearly aligning U.S. policy in support of democratic change in the region,” said Neil Hicks of Human Rights Watch.
But the view from the Middle East and North Africa was less enthusiastic – a lot less.
Pro-reform activists in a number of Arab Spring countries were quick to point out that Saudi Arabia was not mentioned a single time in the more than 5,000 words Obama spoke.
The Sacred Cow is still Sacred!
Anger over that particular omission was dramatically evident in Bahrain, where Saudi troops are supporting the royal family in one of the most viscous crackdowns ever seen in this tiny Gulf country. King Abdullah’s forces are in Bahrain, along with others from the UAE, at the instigation of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is unclear whether these foreign soldiers are participating directly in the beatings and murders and faux trials of protesters, but their presence casts a huge dark shadow over the country.
As The Guardian reported, “Arab analysts said Obama's words were impressive but came largely too late and reflected US fears of the consequences of uprisings without guidance from the West.”
Those Arab analysts haven’t forgotten that in 2009 Obama came to Cairo University to address the Muslim world promising support for democracy. Nothing happened.
Nor have they forgotten that in 2005 George W. Bush attempted to embarrass Mubarak into holding multi-party elections that would be free and fair. Condi Rice even cancelled a trip to the region in protest. But nothing happened and everything went back to the status quo ante.
Most recently, Egyptians are remembering that the U.S. stood at the side of the Mubarak Regime until they were sure which side was going to win before they put their full-throated endorsement behind the headless horsemen of Tahrir Square.
Hussein Ibish, a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, summed up Obama’s latest speech well. He said, “Perhaps the most important change in tone in this regard was on Bahrain, where Obama condemned the crackdown in much stronger terms than the United States has to date. He called for dialogue but noted ‘you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail’.”
Bahrainis appeared to be heartened that their tiny country was mentioned at all, but disappointed that listeners were spared the awful impact of what’s taking place there today.
The bloodbath in Bahrain has been almost universally neglected by major elements of the mainstream press, even though the spokesman for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights has been a consistent supplier of frequent and accurate news and updates. The Bahraini situation is not simple, though it would be easy to simplify it. At its root, it is a story of a Sunni Muslim king ruling over a Shia Muslim majority population. The tactics employed by the royal family are unspeakably barbaric. In many respects, they make Egypt’s security services look like the Keystone Cops.
Chip Pitts, a long-time human rights defender and former CEO of Amnesty USA, summed up Obama’s speech this way:
“The president's speech mainly gave the minimum acknowledgment of new Middle Eastern realities without really constituting anything new or that would represent true leadership that could transcend the classic status quo interests operating there. The last thing those in the region needed was more tired rhetoric; the first thing they need from the US is more genuine, principled, consistent, and results-oriented leadership aimed at producing transformative change.”
But then, the sixty-four thousand dollar question: Does it really matter anymore what the United States thinks or says?
There is a substantial segment of well educated, well informed Arabs that sees the influence of the United States in sad and steady decline. After all, the U.S. was for many years the country that supported and helped finance the enemies of self-government, anti-corruption, a fair legal system, extraordinary rendition, police torture chambers, free elections, and repeal of so-called emergency laws.
Maybe Chip Pitts had it about right: “The last thing those in the region needed was more tired rhetoric; the first thing they need from the US is more genuine, principled, consistent, and results-oriented leadership aimed at producing transformative change.”
Meantime, U.S. pronouncements are triggering a growing ho-hum. As
Jon Alterman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, put it, "There's not a huge amount of curiosity about what the president thinks. President Obama's speech…did nothing to change that social media site Twitter: ‘Obama gave a speech? Really? As if I care’.”