Obama’s Speech: What Was Unsaid

Commentary by Tamer Mallat and Mélissa Rahmouni21 May 2011

Obama’s long overdue speech on the Arab Spring has provoked a series of mixed and muted reactions across the Arab world. For many, his outspoken remarks claiming that any Palestinian state must be created on the basis of the pre-1967 borders, were received as an encouraging sign that the US is upping the ante on Israel. President Obama’s clear embrace of non-violent and pro-democracy protests in addition to his condemnation of the brutal crackdowns in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen, aimed to highlight America’s firm position that favors democratic reform. However, Obama continues to stop short of calling for regime change. By encouraging autocrats from Bahrain to Syria to undergo sincere reforms, Obama’s policy remains focused on ‘behavioral change’ over ‘regime change’. Obama’s silence on a number of issues betrays a possibly more sordid foreign policy shift. Not one word was directed at the developing state of affairs in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Algeria and Morocco.

Accepting the Bahraini fait accompli: Obama hopes to mend ties with the Saudis

America’s strong condemnation of the initial crackdown in Bahrain, and the US voiced support for a compromise and for tangible reforms to increase the rights and representation of the Shiites in Bahrain, was a move the Saudis did not appreciate. A Global Post article last month revealed the details of US support to protestor demands. The Saudi military intervention to quash the protests was a direct reaction to its fear of America’s change of a long-standing policy in the Arab Gulf. This was, in the Saudi’s eyes, a direct violation of the 1945 agreement aboard the USS Quincy that safeguards the protection of US oil interests in Saudi Arabia in exchange for unconditional support for the regime. By sending troops to Bahrain, the Hanbali-Wahhabi Kingdom’s warning was clear: America was on the verge of breaching the contract.

Obama’s decision to tone down rhetoric represents an attempt to mend ties with the Saudis. By explaining how the US “recognizes that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there [Bahrain], and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law,” Obama explains the “political” reasons behind his decision to abandon the opposition movement. His message is as follows: Iran’s intervention in Bahrain makes support for contestation difficult, as it conflicts with American interests, thus realigning himself with Saudi Arabia.

Lebanon, the sacrificial lamb

The silence surrounding Barack Obama’s Lebanon policy raises questions about America’s commitment to the Cedar Revolution and to Lebanese sovereignty. Since Obama’s meeting with former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in early January in which he reaffirmed US support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the halls of the White House have been eerily quiet. On March 13, 2011, the day that marked the sixth anniversary of the 2005 revolution, almost a million Lebanese marched in the center of Beirut to voice their opposition against Hezbollah’s illegal arms, and to show their support for the STL and the pursuit of justice. There was not a single mention or recognition of the Lebanese’s continuous struggle for freedom by the American administration.

It is hard to believe that the quiescence of American policy makers with the Lebanon issue is a matter of coincidental neglect. To understand the current position (or lack thereof) of the US, it is necessary to look back at the conditions under which Obama met Hariri. Their meeting occurred a day after the Saudis decided to drop their support for the STL. A month later, by opting for regime change in Egypt, Obama put himself at odds with the Saudi king who is terrified by the idea that the revolutionary wind might blow in his direction. Initial support by the Americans for the Bahraini contestation movement further widened the gap with the Saudis. Had the US pushed the Lebanese case too far, Obama risked seriously damaging his ties with King Abdullah, a move that endangers US oil interests in the Middle East. In fine, Lebanon’s sacrifice is a calculation the Obama administration deems necessary to balance the side effects of other decisions it has taken in the region.

Selective neglect of the Algerian case

Barack Obama’s omission of the Algerian case stems from three main factors. First, there is limited media coverage amidst international indifference to Algerian protests since January 2011. This gives Obama no incentive to get entangled in one additional country. Second, Algeria is autonomous, unlike the majority of other Arab states that are caught up in a web of regional and international over-determination. This makes other states dependent, and thus vulnerable to American pressure: their decisions get therefore a bilateral or multilateral twist, and often result in compromise. Algeria’s relative independence from this logic spares its government from outside pressure: foreign powers have little leverage over its internal political theater. Lastly, US-Algerian military and anti-terrorist cooperation makes Bouteflika a reliable partner for Obama in North Africa. With limited international interest in the Algerian state of affairs on the whole, America’s best interest is to pass over Algeria in silence.

Morocco and the GCC umbrella

Obama’s decision not to mention certain components of the Arab Spring is not restricted to these three cases. In Morocco, where US and European ties with the monarchy are close, and where the 20 February movement has been limited in scope despite increased mobilization, mention of protests is more problematic than beneficial for Obama. The recent invitation to include Morocco under the umbrella of the GCC, demonstrates a growing solidarity between the monarchical autocrats of the different poles of the Arab world. This is Saudi’s message that Morocco is also off target to the Americans.

Obama’s unsaid reveals in some ways more than what was included in his speech. For a range of countries, the US prefers the status quo.

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Filed under Algeria, Arab Spring, Bahrain, English, Foreign Policy & IR, Gulf states, Lebanon & Syria, Morocco

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