Obama lays down 'Arab Spring' principles

2011-05-20 11:00

Washington - President Barack Obama on Thursday took on the glaring contradiction of decades of US Middle East policy - how can Washington preach universal rights but back tyrants in exchange for stability?

His answer: It can't.

"Let me be specific," Obama said, in his long-awaited response to the tumult which has ousted iron fist autocrats and reshaped nations in the Middle East and North Africa.

"It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy."

But beyond an aid programme for transitioning Egypt and Tunisia, the president offered few new actionable policies for the United States in the Arab world, and did not define exactly what US support for hard-fought freedoms would mean.

In the speech at the State Department, Obama credited his predecessors for seeking to halt terrorism, nuclear proliferation and for trying to forge Arab-Israeli peace in the volatile region for years.

Spiral of division

But without mentioning names, he appeared to tacitly admit that those policies had forced tie-ups with autocrats like former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, and late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad.

He also suggested that popular protests which ditched "the shackles of the past" for "the promise of the future" had rendered past US strategy obsolete.

"A failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world," Obama said.

"We must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind," he said.

"Failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our own interests at their expense."

Rhetorically at least, Obama placed the United States firmly on the side of youthful masses demanding the very core values on which his own nation was founded.

Clear position

"President Obama's speech is an eloquent and inspiring affirmation of American values as applied to the movements for sweeping transformation of the Middle East," said Howard Berman, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Manal Omar, director of Iraq programmes at the US Institute for Peace (USIP) said Obama laid out a "clear position" in support of reforms.

"For people in the streets across the Middle East, Obama's speech is a demonstration of a political will to discuss the difficult issues."

But the president left many questions and inconsistencies unaddressed.

In Libya, for example, the United States joined a Nato assault against strongman Muammar Gaddafi's forces, but in Syria and Iran, its actions have been confined to wielding sanctions and harsh rhetoric as crackdowns raged.

Obama did stiffen the US line against Syrian President Bashar Assad - saying he should lead a transformation or leave - but did not specify how he would back up his threat.

As Berman put it: "He has given Assad a stark choice, reform or go. Now we must find an effective way to press Assad to make that choice."

The president did appear to reserve some wiggle room for the United States for when its core values conflict with geopolitical goals -perhaps in a corner of the Middle East like oil rich Gulf states.

Analysts dismayed

"Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short term interests do not align perfectly with our long term vision of the region," Obama said.

In another unanswered question, Obama did not mention Saudi Arabia - the key US ally and recipient of billions of dollars in US military aid - which is angry over Obama's role in prodding Mubarak to the exit and is resisting the wave of change.

Some analysts were dismayed that the president didn't go further.

"All in all, I would say it was a speech that was large on platitudes but with little actionable steps which go beyond which the United States has said it would do," said Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister, now with the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace.

"I think expectations were that the president would say more," he said.

And another USIP analyst Robin Wright commented that the Arab world would be disappointed with the speech.

"On the issues that now consume their lives, he offered lofty principles but little substantively new in terms of concrete action or admonitions to autocrats," she said.

"The president also did not substantively close the gap in US policy - what Washington is saying or doing - on protests over the same issues in Libya, Syria and notably Bahrain."

- SAPA

Read more on:    nato  |  barack obama  |  muammar gaddafi  |  bashar assad  |  us  |  syria  |  libya  |  saudi arabia  |  syria conflict  |  north africa  |  uprisings  |  libya protests
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