Yes, I’ve read it. As with most of Obama’s speeches, it is a good speech and as with most of his speeches, hits all the right notes and says all the right things. What it all means, however, remains to be seen. One of the things I’ve learned so far with Barack Obama is not to take what he says too seriously as he is prone to ignore his own words or change his mind.
I also wonder if it will be considered a goodwill speech or a lecture by many. I know Israel isn’t going to be particularly happy about portions of it.
I compliment him for addressing some rather controversial issues (and this is where my thoughts about “lecturing” come from) such as women’s rights, religious freedom and democracy. None of the problems he addresses will change because of his speech nor is what he said new or original. He also spoke about Jews and quoted the Torah in Egypt which I found rather interesting.
Terrorism? The word was never mentioned. The closest he gets is talking about “extremists”. While he addressed some controversial issues, he avoided this one altogether.
And, unfortunately, he validated an Al Qaeda talking point about torture by claiming “I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture”. While he may feel that his point is important and the truth, it is a rookie mistake to hand enemies validation like this. He also tried to have it both ways with Iraq, claiming we’re better off without Saddam but essentially condemning the action that made that possible. Again, he probably thought that was an important point, but all it does is validate the other side’s talking (and recruiting) points.
Obama claims this speech establishes a framework for a new era of cooperation with the Islamic world. And, of course, that mostly has the US doing the giving and the “Islamic world” doing the taking. What that means, in real terms, about establishing a new era of cooperation with the nations of Islam, remains to be seen. But given what was outlined, it seems to pretty much be business as usual wrapped up in an eloquent rhetorical wrapper marked “new and improved”.
Anyway, just a few thoughts. You should take the time to read the speech. But, as I implied earlier, Obama is outstanding at talking the talk. Walking the walk, on the other hand, hasn’t yet proven to be his strong suit.
So what’s on the Middle Eastern agenda for the Obama administration?
Frankly that’s the question being asked by a lot of foreign policy watchers right now, especially since President Obama has added Saudi Arabia to his trip itinerary for an upcoming trip to the area. Originally scheduled to first make a stop in Cairo for a speech, he is now stopping in SA first. This, of course, has the Egyptians a bit miffed. Egypt was touting his trip and speech to Cairo as a sort of vindication of their foreign policy as well as their resurgent leadership role among Arabs in the area. Now that’s not quite as easy to claim.
One group sees it as tied closely to the Israeli-Palestinian track, focusing on the Arab Peace Initiative and the coming unveiling of the Obama approach to Israeli-Arab relations. Another sees it as tied more closely to Iran, preparing the Saudis for the coming engagement (or confrontation) with Tehran.
I happen to think it is a little bit of both, but mostly tied to Iran. NoKo has popped a nuke (and we’re aware of the ties between Pyongyang and Tehran). Iran has fired a long range missile. Intelligence says Venezuela and Bolivia are providing Iran with uranium (which both deny). That requires a bit of a change in focus of the mission from one exclusively focused on Israel/Palestine. Iran has heated up and the Arabs are not friends of Iran, certainly feel threatened by them and darn sure don’t want to see Iran establish itself as a regional (and nuclear) power. SA would be a logical stop for discussions on that issue.
As to the Israel/Palestine question, Marc Lynch of Foreign Policy magazine wonders:
… will he reinforce or challenge the “moderates vs resistance” frame which he inherited from the Bush administration? The Arab leaders he has been meeting, like the Israelis, are perfectly comfortable with that approach, dividing the region between Israel and Arab “moderates” vs Iran and Arab “resistance” groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. That’s the easy path. If followed it is likely to fail badly, destroy the hopes for change which his engagement policy has raised, and leave the region right back where Bush left it.
I think there is no question he plans to shake up the status quo. But how he chooses to broker “change” in the engagement policy, his change may face the same risk of abysmal failure other policies have produced. The Hill is reporting that Obama plans on challenging Israel’s plan to continue to allow West bank settlements to grow.
“Each party has obligations under the road map,” Obama said after referencing his meeting last week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama said he has been “very clear” on the need to stop settlement and outpost activity, and he also said Israel has obligations to ensure a viable Palestinian state emerges from the peace process.
Israel has rejected that portion concerning the settlements on the West Bank. That rejection came after the Netanyahu/Obama meeting in Washington DC.
Netanyahu has set out the Israeli negotiating position:
“The government of Israel under my leadership is committed to the political and international agreements signed by the governments of Israel, and we expect others to honor their commitments as well,” Netanyahu told the Knesset. “We want an end to the conflict, and we want reciprocity in the claims on both sides and their implementation. Unfortunately, in this we are also being innovative. We should not have to innovate; it should have been obvious. However, when we are asked to recognize our international commitments, I say yes, and I want others to respect their commitments as well.
“We are prepared to act, and we will take concrete steps towards peace with the Palestinians,” Netanyahu continued. “We also expect the Palestinians to take such concrete steps on their side, and it would be good if the Arab countries joined in the effort towards peace, and take both concrete and symbolic steps towards normalization, and not later, but right now. They are asking us to act now, and so the Palestinians and the Arab countries should also be asked to act now.”
Or shorter Israeli stance – if we’re required to live up to international commitments, the same demand must be made of (and accepted by, and acted upon) by others included in these negotiations.
Right now, one of the major obstacles to any such negotiations is not with the Israelis, but among Palestinians:
The Palestinian Authority faces its own challenges in brokering a peace deal, namely the split between Hamas and Fatah — and, therefore, between Gaza and the West Bank — that essentially renders a two-state solution a three-state solution. Since the violent splinter between Hamas and Fatah in 2007, the U.S. has dealt only with Abbas.
So does the US change its policy and actively enter into negotiations with a terrorist group in hope of brokering a reconciliation? The chances of such a reconciliation seem remote. And of course, the splintering within the Palestinians makes the talk of a “two-state solution” an exercise in unachievable rhetoric for the time being. Why should Israel enter into serious negotiations about such a solution when they are unachievable as it stands today?
This will be an interesting trip to monitor.
More to come.
Edit: Changed Ecuador to Bolivia – thanks for the catch, looker.