Obama’s Changes Don’t Match Changes of the Arab Spring

The Obama administration faced a huge challenge in trying to craft a speech describing a new U.S. policy for the Middle East in the midst of the Arab Spring. They were trying to position the U.S. as friend and supporter of the newly democratizing forces, while at the same time maintaining longstanding support for those on top. For more than half a century, Washington’s allies and partners have been those who have imposed dictatorships and occupations across the Middle East. Their role, in return for massive economic and military aid and protection, was to safeguard U.S. interests in oil, Israel, and strategic stability.

Now that it is the people of the region who are creating those new democracies from below, where peoples’ needs and not oil, Israel and U.S. interests are at stake, what is that real policy change?

A transformed U.S. role in the region would have to go beyond soaring words and even additional economic assistance. It would require an entirely different policy based on the interests of the peoples of the Middle East above U.S. interests in oil, Israel and the “global war on terror.”

That would mean real support for popular, bottom-up democracy, while ending the pattern of continuing military and economic alliances with repressive governments while issuing occasional mild scoldings to improve America’s image in the region. It would mean accepting Middle Eastern definitions of social and economic justice, and respect for local decision-making – even when reality doesn’t match Washington’s illusions of what the “new Middle East” should look like.

President Obama claimed that after his Cairo speech in 2009, he “began to broaden our engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect.” But that “mutual respect” seemed to take an awful long time to show up when people took to the streets in Tunis and Cairo, calling for the ouster of dictators long backed by the U.S.

President Obama’s speech failed to match the extraordinary events of the Arab Spring with a transformed U.S. policy towards the region. Beyond some new economic commitments, the speech was far longer on the soaring rhetoric of democracy and freedom than it was on real policy changes.

What would a transformed U.S. policy look like? It would entail ending all U.S. military ties to any regime suppressing the Arab Spring protests in its own or other countries (that means Saudi Arabia, as well as Bahrain and Yemen), and pulling all troops and mercenaries out of Iraq and Afghanistan. It would mean supporting the creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone throughout the Middle East.

Such a policy would suspend all economic aid until it can be redirected away from militaries, even in democratizing countries, and into the hands of accountable governments. It would end the double standard of harsh sanctions and massive military force imposed against some dictators’ attacks on protestors (such as in Syria and Libya), while America continues to arm and finance dictatorships strategically allied with the U.S. (such as Bahrain and Yemen) with hardly a word of protest against their lethal assaults on unarmed demonstrators.

It would also end the military aid and diplomatic protection that enable Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies towards the Palestinians. And it would replace Washington’s failed “peace process” with support for regional and globally-led diplomacy based on international law and human rights.

The announcement of $1 billion in debt relief for Egypt is important; but its significance is undermined by the other economic plans announced by Obama. The U.S. is now imposing on newly democratizing
Egypt the kind of anti-protection, “free trade” policies that have been so disastrous in other parts of the developing world, leading to devastation for local farmers and producers forced to compete with global corporations. Beyond the limited policy changes towards the key countries of the Arab Spring, the much-hoped for change in U.S. policy towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was hardly to be seen.

The one potentially significant shift was when Obama left the door slightly open to engaging with a united Palestinian government that includes Hamas. But there wasn’t much else to write home about. President Obama closed with the assertion that the U.S. “was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves. Now we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights.”

Those words, however, apparently do not apply to Palestinians. He asserted that “every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself.” Palestine has no such right – it is to be demilitarized from the outside.

President Obama identified the principles of U.S. diplomacy and Israeli demands as the “foundation for negotiations.” But he is wrong. The only foundation that will work is that of international law and human rights. Until then, the Arab Spring will not blossom from the long Palestinian and Israeli winter.

Phyllis Bennis is a writer, analyst, and director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.