Friday, May 27, 2011

Obama Embraces the Arab Spring


President Barack Obama can never be faulted for his choice of words. His assessment of the Arab Spring and the US role in it was no exception. "Change cannot be denied", he said and proceeded to endorse the movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Claiming to open a new chapter in American diplomacy, Obama spoke out clearly in favour of democratic change, urging the leaders of the region either to lead the transition or get out of the way. "America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia against the raw power of the dictator", he declared.

What pleased the President about the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the demands for change in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa was that they meant rejection of the ways of Osama Bin Laden, who believed that violent extremism alone would take the Islamic world to the promised land. As Tom Friedman pointed out, Laden lived long enough to see the death of his philosophy in the Arab world. The people in the region had taken their future into their own hands and they had achieved more in six months than terrorists had accomplished in decades. In the circumstances, the rest of the world, particularly the US should readjust their policies to remain relevant.

President Obama admitted that the core interests the US had pursued in the region, such as counter terrorism, non-proliferation, free trade, security, Israeli friendship and Arab- Israeli peace had not helped to eliminate mistrust. Self determination of individuals would be as important as stability and , therefore, the US would oppose repression and support universal human rights.In dealing with specific cases, President Obama sought to find common elements in all of them, which deserved the US support. Seeking democratic change in the Arab world was an opportunity for the US.

But more importantly, President Obama recognized that politics alone did not put protesters into the streets. Though there were islands of prosperity in these countries, many had difficulty putting the food on the table. Talents were in plenty, but corruption and authoritarianism denied opportunity to young people. President Obama outlined a number of measures ranging from writing off Egypt's debt to multilateral and bilateral assistance to the countries that emerged from repressive regimes.

No speech on the Arab world could conclude without a road map for Israel and Palestine. In fact, it would have made no sense if the President had made no mention of this core issue on which the future of US- Arab relations would depend. A day before receiving Prime Minister Natenyahu in the White House, Barack Obama became the first US President to explicitly state that the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. He was categorical about the unshakable US commitment to Israel's security, but the principles he laid down for an eventual solution based on Israel and Palestine existing within recognized and secure borders were unexceptionable, The plans were opposed instantly by Israel, Hamas and the Republican Party, a sure sign that Obama plans had the potential to move towards a compromise.

Like the Cairo speech two years ago, the Arab Spring speech too was an effort to build bridges with the Islamic world. Coming as it did after the elimination of Bin Laden, the speech was particularly conciliatory except in the case of Iran and Syria, which were clubbed together for supporting terrorism and repressing their own people. A heavy dose of economic measures will be welcomed by the new regimes, which have to grapple with depleted treasuries and development challenges. The President sought to justify US intervention in Libya and hinted that the US would not hesitate to step in wherever the new spirit of democracy faced resistance.

Barack Obama mentioned virtually every country, which had shown signs of unrest, but steered clear of even mentioning Saudi Arabia, an omission, which was carefully noted by analysts. But the sweeping generalisations he made about the elements of the Arab Spring cannot but apply to Saudi Arabia also. But there is no denying the fact that each situation would require a different principle and policy.

President Obama has a greater reputation as an orator rather than as a statesman. His readiness to pursue American national interests at any cost, even by initiating new wars and other forms of intervention has detracted from his messiah image he had before the election. The US foreign policy has shown no great change since Barack Obama became President. Expectations about peace breaking out on all fronts, on the basis of which President Obama was given a Nobel Prize for Peace were belied. Against such a record, the Arab Spring speech would also be read with skepticism, cynicism and even disbelief. The world will welcome the lofty ideas that have figured in the speech, but the credibility deficit will remain till the US conduct on the ground matches the President's golden vocabulary.


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