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Obama's Middle East Speech: Beware the Arab Fall

Friday, May 20, 2011

Apparently President Barack Obama's speech on U.S. Middle East policy has created quite the uproar among those who are shocked to learn that there is gambling going on in Rick's place. So be it.

For me, I'll limit my textual analysis to the speech's few sentences that might end up having a real-world impact. First place goes to this one, which represents the kind of contractual language against which future U.S. policy should be held accountable:

Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest -- today I am making it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.

Honorable mention goes to this one, since regional doubt over the U.S. commitment to its security guarantees represents the greatest "counter-revolutionary" threat to the current wave of democratization:

As we did in the Gulf War, we will not tolerate aggression across borders, and we will keep our commitments to friends and partners.

And amen to this one, because, while military-to-military contacts are good, without people-to-people contacts, they are insufficient for developing the kinds of bonds between nations that withstand social upheaval:

We must also build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future -- particularly young people.

Finally, with regard to the claim that the speech represents yet another example of continuity with the policies of the Bush administration, I'd simply point to this subtle but significant nod to the importance of timing -- that is, the need to support, rather than impose, democratic aspirations in the Arab world:

Now, we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.

More broadly, the strength of Obama's analysis is to recognize that the Arab uprisings have been driven not just by the political aspirations that fit in so well with America's core values, but also by economic aspirations. Also to his credit, Obama recognized that the U.S will require help, particularly from Europe, if it is to support Arab governments in meeting those aspirations. The section on promoting "integration with U.S. and European markets" and the construction of a "regional trade arrangement" sounds remarkably similar to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's ill-fated Union for the Mediterranean, which, though ridiculed by many observers at the time, suffered mainly from the fatal flaw of being too far ahead of the curve in terms of the region's political realities.

However, the weakness of Obama's analysis is in ignoring the degree to which the economic aspirations driving the Arab Spring, when combined with similar aspirations throughout the emerging world, create the very shifts in global economic and political power that contribute to the rise of populism in the U.S. and Europe. For now, the faith that globalization will in and of itself magically lead to the widespread distribution of its very real benefits has not been borne out, whether in the West or the South and East. And as I've said from the very beginning of the uprisings, the real seismic shock -- for the region and the world -- will come if the victories of the Arab Spring do not result in real and widely distributed economic dividends come the Arab Summer and Fall. For that to happen, though, the system upon which globalization is based must be reformed, in order to address the fears and losses of the West, but also the needs and aspirations of the Rest.

Obama's speech addressed the political elements of what I called at the time the Global Crisis of Legitimacy, in that he squarely confronted the ways in which the pursuit of U.S. interests in the region have often been at odds with our professed values. But it did not address the economic aspects of that crisis of legitimacy, which require a much broader program of reforms to the system of globalization.

One step at a time, of course, and the speech represents a solid first one. But the next step needs to be chosen carefully if it is not to lead down a dead end.