Obama’s Middle East Speech: Applause Lines for Democracy

Obama gave an inspirational speech advocating for change in MENA–“Prosperity also requires tearing down walls that stand in the way of progress – the corruption of elites who steal from their people”–that I wish he’d advocate in the US. And after comparing the uprisings in the Middle East to the Civil Rights movement, I found this line particularly powerful:

I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of non-violence as a way to perfect our union.

In addition, there were some key points of utter contradiction, as in this passage:

As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself – by itself – against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. [my emphasis]

But I was most intrigued by two subtle details of the delivery of the speech.

First, the audience watching the speech (which I believe was made up of State Department employees, but I’m trying to clarify) clapped just twice before the end of the speech. First, after Obama said this line:

The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region.

And after Obama finished this passage:

Bahrain is a long-standing partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law. Nevertheless, we have insisted publically and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.

This was an audience that gave Obama just two key punctuation marks, pushing the US further for its support of this democracy movement, and very specifically on Bahrain, the place where our engagement has been most hypocritical.

Which also brings us to the other most interesting detail, IMO, about the delivery of the speech. Keep in mind this speech was late, reportedly because of some last minute changes.

Now, before he reached the section on Bahrain, Obama had mentioned just about every other uprising in the region: Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and even Iran. Several of us on Twitter were discussing whether he’d even mention Bahrain, where the Saudis are assisting the government in brutally repressing a largely Shiite uprising.

Which is why it’s interesting that Obama stumbled on the beginning words of this passage. This is an observation that @krmaher made too, on Twitter, suggesting that perhaps the stumble meant he hadn’t rehearsed this part of the speech. It’s a good point: did Obama stumble, just this once in the entire speech (it’s not something Obama does often anyway), because he changed the speech at the last minute to push for change in Bahrain, too? Or because he realized that supporting change in Bahrain, even as the Saudis try to turn it into a proxy war against Iran, was going to be the hardest thing to deliver?

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  1. emptywheel says:

    Incidentally, Ben Rhodes is doing a chat with Marc Lynch and NPR’s Andrew Carvin, both of whom have some of the best feel on MENA activists on Twitter. It’s working out to be an opportunity for people in MENA to ask questions of one of O’s key advisors about the speech. Pretty effective, IMO.

  2. Arbusto says:

    How did the Sudis get their nose in Bahrain’s tent, in support of Bahrain’s monarchy, without Obama’s knowledge or tacit consent. This is a big camel in the tent of his Arab brotherhood policy, not to mention resetting the policy on Israel uber alles to keep AIPAC happier, oh, and fluff Netanyahu.

    • bobschacht says:

      How did the Sudis get their nose in Bahrain’s tent, in support of Bahrain’s monarchy, without Obama’s knowledge or tacit consent.

      This goes back to a time before Obama was even born. First, we have the legacy of WW II Middle Eastern royal families (Check intermarriage), and the fact that Bahrain shares a common border with Saudi Arabia. Next, add the fact(?) that Shi’a countries tend to be run by theocrats, and that Saudi Arabia shares with the royalty of Bahrain a preference for Sunni Islam (the match is not perfect, because the Saudi Arabian elite tends towards Wahhabi Islam). Obama is a newcomer to all this, as far as they’re concerned.

      Bob in AZ

  3. hotdog says:

    with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state.

    The right to self-defense? Is that why it’s called Jew jitzu?

    • bobschacht says:

      with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state.

      The right to self-defense? Is that why it’s called Jew jitzu?

      The idea of a Palestinian state without the ability to defend itself is an abomination. As Jimmy Carter pointed out, this is legalized apartheid.

      Bob in AZ

  4. cregan says:

    I’d vote for a late addition to the speech.

    The support for democracy in general has been long standing policy (even though there were some saying “not everyone wants democracy, etc. a few years ago).

    However, it is interesting that he is only promoting it now that the result is fairly easily seen. He needed to promote it BEFORE the game was already mostly won.

    Kind of like running to the head of an already moving parade and pretending you are leading it.

    • emptywheel says:

      Yeah, though I think he’s been better on MENA, with the exception of our Israel and Libya, than on most things. It was a tremendously delicate balance to play. And had he championed it too early, it might have given the people less ownership of their own movement.

  5. Jeff Kaye says:

    The story of this Revolution, and the ones that followed, should not have come as a surprise. The nations of the Middle East and North Africa won their independence long ago, but in too many places their people did not. In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of the few. In too many countries, a citizen like that young vendor had nowhere to turn – no honest judiciary to hear his case; no independent media to give him voice; no credible political party to represent his views; no free and fair election where he could choose his leader.

    This is bitter to take, and I imagine even more so for those who were tortured, or who had family members tortured, imprisoned or disappeared for through all these decades it was the United States that backed these tyrants, who supported the corrupt judiciary, said nothing while independent media were imprisoned — hell, ever hear of Sami al-Hajj, tortured and imprisoned as an illegal enemy combatant for six years at Guatnanamo? (This question is not aimed at EW, who has written about al-Hajj, but for rhetorical emphasis.)

    The U.S. has lost all credibility, but what it does have is money, and lots of it, to spread around to opinion makers, to foreign politicians and political parties, to the military, etc.

    So, the U.S. recognizes their old support for dictators isn’t going to cut it anymore, that it’s time to prop up some new “democratic” front men (and in some few cases, front women) who will support the profits of Exxon, BP, and others in the Gulf region and associated states.

    Certainly, nothing was said about Sudan or Uganda, where the U.S. is giving aid to security forces propping up murderous, torturing regimes. Somehow, Obama forgot to give thanks, too, to the regimes of Egypt, Libya, Jordan, Morocco, Syria and others who took in the renditioned prisoners the U.S.sent them for exquisite forms of torture.

    Last night, I posted an article about the U.S. Congress refusing to declassify documents that would show U.S. support to the “Dirty War” in Argenina, and linked to a discussion at a Kissinger State Dept meeting where the question of what kind of “support” to give the new military dictatorship was discussed, including what one would say publicly, versus what is said behind governmental closed doors.

    I will look to see what the U.S. does in coming months, where the military aid goes, what kinds of counterinsurgency and interrogation “training” is given, etc.

    Actions, not words. Or as the old saying goes, “Money talks, and bullshit walks.”

  6. cregan says:

    True, a delicate balance.

    I was thinking especially of Libya and Syria. And, could for sure be more forceful regarding those pushing for freedom in Iran.

  7. GulfCoastPirate says:

    LOL – Is there any serious person on the planet who thinks a people that have been brutalized as much as the Palestinians should be forced to demilitarize themselves if they have to live next to the Israelis? That’s one of the silliest things I’ve ever heard. If they are going to have a state then they should have the same rights as all other states.

    Although I do hope the recent reports they intend to persue non violent protests are true. That’s their best chance I would think given the discrepancies in power.

  8. behindthefall says:

    site monitors: can’t comment for 2 days using XP/Opera. Just succeeded for first time using XP/Chrome. Can we make the site browser-neutral again, please?

    • GulfCoastPirate says:

      Well, they can’t allow their response to be dictated by Israel and/or what Israel does to them. That’s been their MO up to now and it hasn’t exactly worked all that well. Will some of them continue to be killed and have their land stolen? Unfortunately, yes. However, unless you think the rest of the world is going to arm them at a higher rate than what the US is arming Israel it’s the only chance they’ve got.

  9. bell says:

    i agree with jeff kaye and gulf coast pirate..

    as for the palestinians expressing non-violence – indeed, a great idea, while israel continues to murder them and steal their land with not a word from the bullshit leader from the usa.. must not have animosity towards israel for its murderous actions, as it is okay for them to steal land and murder anyone who protests in an non violent manner as we saw the past week.. obama is a hypocrite……….

  10. reader says:

    Palestine is ENTITLED to equality with Israel. End of story. The favoritism towards Israel is utterly incoherent. Either Israel divests its miltarism (which is only needed to enforce its unfair advantages to oppress Palestinians) OR Palestine is entitled to the same level of militarism. Think US and Russia: cold war. Peace would be nice but this setup was created a long time ago. IF all we can have is a standoff let’s fuckin’ have a FAIR standoff.

  11. bell says:

    arab spring will happen in gaza too, in spite of the usa’s misogynist relationship with israel.. nothing like a bad relationship to screw others in the vicinity…

  12. john in sacramento says:

    Don’t know if you meant it that way Marcy, but this title is perfect

    Obama’s Middle East Speech: Applause Lines for Democracy

    “Applause lines”

    I think this speech was stagecraft just as much as any of Bush’s

  13. strangely enough says:

    We got the obligatory Iran scolding (meddlers!1!). Any similar castigation of the Saudis for actually sending in troops?

    And a “legitimate interest in the rule of law” WRT Bahrain just sounds bizarre.