President Obama’s speech on Thursday at the State Department was neither groundbreaking nor surprising. Despite the rhetoric from both Secretary of State Clinton who spoke briefly before the President about a “bold new approach” in US foreign policy, and Obama himself who bespeaks a “new chapter in American diplomacy”, the realities on the ground tell a different story.
The speech was an eloquent, but not substantive, 45-minute charade about an America that is trying to portray itself as a friend of the people of the Middle East. The truth of the matter is no one can cover up the history of America’s alliances with the dictators who are enemies of their own people and this relationship still defines much of US foreign policy in the region albeit with Mubarak and Ben Ali out of commission. The US needn’t worry on this front; they have plenty of other Arab dictators who are still keeping them company.
Obama can indeed provide an emotional chronology of events in Tunisia, starting from the self-immolation of Bouazizi to Ben Ali’s unceremonious departure, but where was American condemnation, à la remarks on Syria, Iran and Libya, when his allies in Tunis were opening fire on innocent pro-democracy protests in the early days of that revolution?
Obama spoke passionately about the rights of women and the need to have “their voices heard”, but throughout his entire speech, he did not once mention Saudi Arabia, where women are not even allowed to drive cars, where people are still beheaded, and by America’s own admission, the world’s largest source of funds for terrorist groups.
Egypt was mentioned 18 times, Tunisia 10 times, Iran 9 times, Syria 8 times Libya 7 times, Bahrain 6 times, but interestingly, Saudi Arabia, one of the regions most obvious, and most powerful, dictatorships, did not even merit a fleeting comment by the American President. There’s no need to get into the economics of America’s relationship with the Arab world, but their interest in “securing the free flow of commerce” may provide a clue as to why he was so mute on Saudi’s horrific human rights record.
Obama was undoubtedly right when he argued, “no development strategy can be based solely upon what comes out of the ground” but maybe the world would be a better place if the US did not base their foreign policy on what comes out of the ground too.
It would be interesting to see if Obama could tell the pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain, whilst keeping a straight face, that “America’s interests are not hostile to peoples’ hopes.” He was not as silent on Bahrain as he was with Saudi Arabia but when he speaks about the “difficulties of enforcing regime change” he could perhaps start with simply not supporting oppressive regimes in the first place. He argues it was “not America that put people into the streets of Tunis and Cairo” but the irony is it is America that keeps dictators in their palaces in Riyadh and Manama.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when Obama says Bahrain is a “long-standing partner and we are committed to its security” and that the “Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law” what he is really saying is the pro-democracy movement may as well give up because their plight means nothing when the US Fifth Fleet is in their backyard. Unlike fellow Arabs who witnessed their dictators fall, with American blessing eventually, the closest they can get to political reform is empty promises of dialogue.
Compare the words Obama used to describe the tragedy in Bahrain, “mass arrests” and “brute force” with Syria, where Assad chose the “path of murder” or Libya, where Gaddafi “launched war against his own people” and you begin to realise that despite his own words, “we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights,” there is evidently a between-the-lines disclaimer that reads “but only if your rights stand in the way of our interests”
America doesn’t always get it wrong, and sometimes they do act decisively to end evil regimes, but you would hope, if only for their sake, they would stop creating, or ignoring, ticking time bombs.