Earlier this week, Robert Fisk wrote a piece in The Independent decrying the fundamental hypocrisy of America’s Middle Eastern policy: Obama rhetorically supports democracy in the region but has not followed through on his high talk when it came to the Arab Spring. The schism between what Obama says and what the United States does is pretty clear to anyone who cares to look – true democracy, for example, doesn’t belong in Bahrain or Palestine because the US is allied with anti-democratic forces. Fisk concludes that the US President thinks less of Arabs by continuing to speak high rhetoric while only partially supporting the mass movements in the region and that soon – because of this – the United States will no longer be a relevant actor in the Middle East.
There are several issues I have with this article, as interesting as it is. Fisk does a thorough job in documenting how the American policy for the Middle East consistently undermines itself, although these contradictions are not new. They are the same contradictions that have plagued America’s regional policy for decades and are simply the louder version of America’s other regional policies that similarly demand respect for human rights and democracy where it does not conflict with American national interests (here’s looking at you Africa). America, like other countries, is logically putting perceived national interests above the greater good of support for human rights. Obama was late coming to Mubarak’s disposal party because many believed that it was more beneficial for the United States (and Israel) to have a pliant dictator in charge. On the other hand, in Libya, concern over human rights took control of the discussion because the United States had little national interest involved in retaining Qaddafi. Likewise, Bahrain’s activists were denied support because the government houses the US 5th fleet, Saudi Arabia is too important to the world oil market for the US to support activists and the potential for a more revolutionary leader to take control in Syria has the US President taking a more moderated stance.
The idealism espoused by Obama in his Cairo speech was received by the Arab street as a potential shift in the way the United States interacts with the Middle East. Obama was going to support the people, rather than the dictators and he was going to find a solution to the Israel/Palestinian conflict. The speech gave hope to many previously disillusioned Arabs that the United States would finally follow through on all the human rights talk. Obama was unable to attain any of these great expectations he helped forge, returning many Arabs to their cynical view of American intentions. When Obama spoke last week in a drastically toned down, though still idealistic sequel to his Cairo speech, Arabs (at least those that watched) were, at best, skeptical. As Fisk says, Arabs cared little for what Obama had to say. Real change was made without the help of the Americans.
However, this is where Fisk loses me. While Fisk blames Obama for ‘losing the Arabs,’ the President barely strayed from the wise realist policy that has guided American actions across the world for years. Arabs who cared little for Obama’s words during Cairo II were simply returning to the decades old view that America does not do what it says. Certainly, the President could have taken drastically different stances towards many of the conflicts across the region, but this would have required a drastic change in not only American policy, but in the fundamental way in which the American government views the world. Such a basic shift in American foreign policy might not be a negative development, but it is hardly surprising that Obama failed to strip American policy of its America-first characteristics.
Moreover, a policy that puts immediate national interests above all other considerations is hardly one that is based on the principle that Arabs are “stupider than the rest.” Certainly, Obama’s speeches give the impression that America cares primarily about human rights, but – again – the rhetorical adherence to democracy for others is not an Obama invention. The current indifference felt among Arabs towards American intentions is a return to the pre-Obama days during which it seemed clear to Arabs (and the rest of the world) that America’s regional policy was based, as it is today, on what is best for the United States. During the Cold War, American policy was obviously couched in very different terms, but it still retained the US-first characteristics that still define it.
Perhaps Obama can be faulted for his loyalty to the fundamental base of American foreign policy or, at bare minimum, Obama’s definition of American interests can be hotly debated (is support for free elections regardless of the winners better for America than Mubarak-esque friendly dictators?). However, Fisk blames the disillusionment of Arabs completely on President Obama. The Arab public, though, was disillusioned long before 2008.
Finally, Fisk spends most of his article lamenting over the American hypocrisy surrounding Palestine and Israel. Of course, the United States is in a much more vicarious position in this conflict than, say, the Egyptian revolution as the gap between words and actions is so large and it is not as evident that support for the status quo is in America’s interests. Regardless, Fisk uses this conflict as his main accusation against the Obama administration’s handling of the Middle East. Obama – the “Great Speechifier,” according to Fisk – cowered in front of Netanyahu, bought the Israeli line and took a stand against a UN declaration of Palestinian statehood and has thus lost legitimacy in the eyes of the Arab public.
Now to be sure, I have been critiquing Obama’s biased approach to the Palestinian issue since before he was elected. Obama has completely denied Palestinians the same rights as Israelis (Israel deserves self-defense, for example, but Palestine does not) and time and again bowed down to the powerful forces of the Israel lobby. But let us not pretend that Obama’s approach to the conflict is any different than any American president in the last 50 years. Fisk spends most of his article claiming that the Palestinian issue is the main reason why Obama has lost the Middle East; why American power is becoming irrelevant in the region. Yet, again, Obama is simply following the same path as his predecessors. Critique the president for following the path that has been laid out by over 50 years of flawed American policy, but don’t blame him for creating it.
Fisk uses the many examples of American hypocrisy (particularly in the Palestinian issue) as reasons why America will soon be irrelevant in the region. Obama, according to Fisk, has refused to adapt to the changing nature of the Middle East and, consequently, Arabs do not care what America thinks:
Who cares in the Middle East what Obama says? Not even, it seems, the Israelis. The Arab spring will soon become a hot summer and there will be an Arab autumn, too. By then, the Middle East may have changed forever. What America says will matter nothing.
Fisk is certainly correct in pointing out the many ways in which the hypocrisy inherent in American policy has become obvious due to the uprisings in the Arab Spring, but he seems to be under the impression that this is a new characteristic of American policy in the Middle East. The diatribe reads as though, prior to Obama, the United States was seen as an honest nation unwaveringly pursuing democracy and human rights for all in the Middle East. Does Fisk assume that Arabs did not know that America was propping up the dictators in the region before the recent revolutions? Do the people of the Middle East really believe that everything in Palestine was fine before Obama backed down to the Israel and the lobby?
Once again, I want to make it clear that I have repeatedly written about how America’s policy in the Middle East is an uneasy balance between support for human rights and American interests. Like Fisk, I believe that this inherent contradiction is a weakness for the United States that is harming the standing of the country in the region. Likewise, the new realities of the Middle East that were created by the Arab Spring are bringing these American contradictions into the limelight, leading many to question America’s true intentions. But the gap between American words and American actions did not start with Obama. Obama may have “waffled” on about change in the Middle East before missing the boat of the mass democratic movements across the region, but let us not pretend that America’s credibility in the Middle East was lost by our current President. It was gone a long time ago.
Photo from Patrick McCabe