On May 19, President Barack Obama gave an important speech about America's Middle East policy to the State Department. The speech was not released on America’s evening prime time, but rather at a time more suitable for viewers in the Middle East and North Africa. The State Department even made a fuss about immediately translating the text into Arabic and Farsi.
There were two parts to Obama’s speech: First, he praised the Arab Spring; second, he established the conditions under which Israel and Palestine can create a lasting solution. Even though he spoke eloquently, he was challenged by two people — one who was already dead, and one who was about to meet him.
Osama bin Laden had been exhorting people to take up arms for the past several years. He wanted to remove the villains and dictators who cooperate with America and Europe and revitalize the true beliefs of Islam. The results of the Arab Spring seem to correspond very well to his exhortations. However, al-Qaida and America responded in similar ways; neither party expected these events to happen, neither party had prepared to deal with them after they happened and both were marginalized during the event.
In the week before bin Laden was killed, he made a recording that was placed on al-Qaida’s official website the day before Obama made his speech. During the 11-minute online discussion, he lavishly praised the people of Tunisia and Egypt. Yet, interestingly, he did not mention the civil war in Libya, the crackdown in Syria or Yemen’s political deadlock.
Bin Laden was not cut off from the rest of the world; he had satellite television and watched Al Jazeera. Still, he did not know how to comment on the revolution in Libya. Moammar Gadafhi was his rival. Therefore, bin Laden should have been happy to see him forced to step down. At the same time, the temporary government was receiving help from Western military forces, something which bin Laden had always fiercely opposed. Bin Laden warned the leaders of the uprisings that there was a historical opportunity in front of them. They could quench their desire for liberation, but there was also a possibility that they would stray from the path, which would cause the West to dominate the area.
The biggest criticism against America during the Arab Spring was its double standards. Why did it send troops to intervene in Libya but not Syria? Why did it not condemn the crackdown in Bahrain whilst condemning the crackdown in Yemen? Obama defended his decision in the speech, emphasizing that America’s values and those manifested in the Arab Spring were the same. Even though Obama said that the U.S. “cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people,” he also said the United States was willing to provide economic assistance, reduce foreign debt for countries that experienced revolutions and talk to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank about creating a large aid plan for the Middle East similar to the Marshall Plan.
Yet it was strange that Obama did not mention Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia represents the archetype of all autocratic Arab countries, yet it is one of America’s most important allies. Thus, America has to put its interests before its values. After Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down during the Jasmine Revolution, the Saudis clearly learned that they could not trust America.
Where Obama discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, his stance was also one of pragmatism and helplessness. Obama did not have ambitious plans for peace talks — his Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, stepped down as he realized there was nothing he could do. Mitchell resigned before Obama’s speech and announced that the government should call for a state based on the 1967 borders as part of its solution for Israel. The goal is to curry favor with the Palestinians. Fortunately, when the United Nations vetoes the resolution to create a Palestinian state, it will not seem like America was favoring Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, was not buying it. On the next day, when he attended a meeting at the White House, he vociferously challenged Obama and said there was no way Israel could accept such a proposal. Returning Golan Heights and giving up the right to put guards on the Jordan River would poke a hole in Israel’s security.
During the Arab Spring, Israel took a look around its borders. What it was most worried about was that Egypt to the west had already become reactionary. In a complete reversal from the past and a rejection of Israel’s goodwill, it was encouraging Hamas and Fatah to make a reconciliation pact. To the east, Syria was dealing with the furious protests of its populace, and President Bashar al-Assad’s administration was likely to create disturbances in order to shift domestic attention from the protests.
Netanyahu believes that Obama, who studied at an Islamic school when he was small, is far too naive. Just before the latter’s speech began, Netanyahu called Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and expressed his fierce opposition. Netanyahu and Clinton fought about the issue until the minute before Obama’s speech. Israel has always been promoting more communication, but it was incapable of changing Obama’s decision.
If bin Laden used a violent, terrorist method to give the Americans a wake-up call, then Netanyahu is using his Jewish influence to permeate the American political system. The highlight of this visit, besides actively requesting an opportunity to speak to Congress, was his attendance of the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. As they all depend on Jewish people to provide donations, American politicians who were invited did not dare miss the occasion.
Obama is taking fire from both sides, and it is not just a part of his imagination. Ultimately, he is unable to reduce the political influence of Jewish people. During his remarks on Sunday, Obama said that the 1967 borders can only be agreed on via negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Netanyahu immediately praised these words. Secretly, the White House was livid, yet could not react.
Meanwhile, Obama really needs to prevent bin Laden’s dream from living on. Some of the leaders of countries involved in the Arab Spring — Egypt’s current leadership, for example — will be succeeded by radical Islamic groups. Furthermore, al-Qaida is continuing to attack, and Pakistan’s naval base was attacked by terrorists on May 22. This serves as the best reminder of what Obama really needs to do.