America entered the Middle East as a serious player in February 1945 when President Roosevelt met Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz on a ship in the Suez Canal. The US then had a single Middle East preoccupation: how to secure its security interests in the post-war era. Saudi Arabia’s Dhahran airfield had served an important role during the conflict and its oil was going to be vital for America’s new role as global anti-communist policeman.
US Middle East policy became a double-headed monster in May 1948 when America recognised the state of Israel. Washington says support for Israel is vital to US’ security interests. The reality – and one almost universally acknowledged – is that it consistently isn’t.
A third priority – containing radical Islam – emerged following the 1979 Iranian revolution. And now there is a fourth: supporting movements demanding political change in countries that are US allies.
Obama’s main challenge in his speech at the State Department last week, however, was presenting to the American people a narrative that turned the four conflicting objectives into a coherent whole. The aim was to make it sound like it all made sense and Obama gave the impression that he thought it did.
The first question Obama addressed is the one being asked across America. Why spend trillions on interventions in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world? And why has a man elected in part because he promised to end America’s Iraq war got it involved in a new one in Libya?
Obama’s response, and the most compelling part of his speech, combined the conventional argument that America’s vital interests demanded action in the region with the claim that the US was obliged to spread the benefits secured by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. America’s actions in the Middle East were both rational and right.
Obama linked America’s civil rights movement with the uprisings of the Arab Spring. This is contentious. Radical Islamists, given a chance, would reduce women’s rights and probably end freedom of religious practice and thought as well.
Obama linked America’s civil rights movement with the uprisings of the Arab Spring
Obama’s support for protesters in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria then set the scene for what sounded like an ultimatum to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad: stop repressing your people or go. But how that is going to be made to happen was not explained. Obama then moved on to a denunciation of the Iranian regime and called them hypocrites. It sounded like he was going through the motions because he was.
Obama turned to America’s Arab friends who were resisting calls for reform. He called for the Bahrain government to start a dialogue with the opposition. The real target, however, was Saudi Arabia, though it was not mentioned. The reprimand was mild. Obama was on safer ground when he announced debt forgiveness for Egypt and called for economic reform in the Middle East.
Syria’s own response to Obama’s speech was to shoot dozens more demonstrators the next day
Having dealt with the three priorities – America’s Arab friends and regional enemies and the popular risings – Obama turned to Israel. He repeated America’s support for a two-state solution. His call for borders to be based on the 1967 borders was no more than a public statement of the consensual interpretation of what creating a Palestinian state implies. Obama’s refusal to damn the Fatah-Hamas pact appeared to be more likely to stir Israeli passions. But Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu publicly rejected both ideas less than 24 hours later and added, for good measure, a call for the Palestinians to abandon the right of return. Syria’s own response to Obama’s speech was to shoot dozens more demonstrators the next day.
Obama probably believes his speech constitutes a practical programme for action. Events since his address, however, show this is wishful thinking and the contradictions in US Middle East policy are profound.
Obama’s vision is afflicted by the impossible desire simultaneously to appease Arab friends, please Israel, contain America’s enemies and support Middle East idealists. But he has had his say. And that’s that.