Watching President Obama’s speech yesterday was both a moving but also a frankly discomforting experience. The fact that he was speaking in Egypt and said absolutely nothing supportive or reassuring to the Egyptian people who have been suffering for decades under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial whims and repression suggests Obama may have good manners but is still not willing to say “in public” what he undoubtedly knows in private.
If anything Obama’s presence and demeanor in Cairo will likely reinforce Mubarak’s legitimacy and undermine Obama’s message that America now stands for change. What’s new about America’s self-serving support for Middle East despots?
But that is not the main problem with the speech. The main problem is the notion that is was addressed to the “Muslim world.” What Muslim world? If ever there was an American lens with which to view the world it is the notion that Muslims somehow live in an interconnected universe of shared interests and aspirations.
After listening to that speech, I did come away saying, “He’s no Bush.” Gone are the insincere calls for peace and the outright lies and hypocrisy. There was no carrot and stick in this message, no veiled threats or tempting promises. It was a cry in the wilderness, if you will, what any sane person in Obama’s circumstances would ask for: Give peace a chance; stop the madness.
But what I also heard is that America will continue fighting the war on terrorism as long as we deem it necessary for our national interest, we will never abandon Israel, and Iran will never have a nuclear weapon. And if I heard it that way, I’m sure that plenty of Muslim listeners did as well.
Whether or not one agrees with these prescriptions, the fact is that Obama seems to have abandoned the search for new ideas and instead has merely reinforced a set of old ones that frankly aren’t working very well. The speech put an end to the hope that the Obama administration was somehow going to introduce some game-changing elements into the Middle East drama.
Let’s fast forward to the end of Obama’s second term. What are the best possible outcomes for his new way in the Middle East. A functioning Palestinian state? Not in any of our lifetimes. Perhaps the best scenario will be that Israel has halted construction of new settlements, limited the expansion of old ones, and that Palestinians are able to freely transact business with the outside world within a semi-autonomous political structure that neither accepts nor recognizes Israeli legitimacy but that does recognize reality.
A non-nuclear Iran? In exchange for pulling back on its support for Hamas, Hezbollah and other extremist elements working against American interests, Iran will have a domestic nuclear power industry and will be earning healthy profits by exporting power to its neighbors to displace declining oil revenues. Iran will likely not have a bomb but it will certainly have the knowledge and resources to construct one if it feels it needs to. The Ayatollahs will still publicly criticize America but will be grateful that we have put enough pressure on Israel not to bomb their enrichment facilities.
Americans will be largely gone from Iraq which will still be in shambles, and Afghanistan will still be in chaos. Pakistan will resemble Lebanon more and more, much to the growing dismay of India, and the rest of the Middle East will look pretty much the same.
Obama’s speech truly represents an end: to American illusions that there are American answers to other people’s problems. He will likely get criticized from the Right for backing down from the great crusade to democratize the planet, but that is unfair. That was a project that only deeply naïve people could have ever hoped to succeed.
Also looming at the end of Obama’s second term is the possibility that we’ll be entering the ninth year of our economic downturn. In that case, America will look a lot different from when he took office, and the pain and suffering of Americans will count a lot more in the 2016 election than what is happening in the Middle East.