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Initial thoughts on Obama's ME speech

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20 May 2011 14:07

The problem with policy approaches to the Arab Spring is that each Arab country is quantitatively and qualitatively different and each requires a unique solution. As I have heard said elsewhere, the problem with addressing the current unrest is that 'One size fits none'. 

With that in mind, and leaving out the Middle East Peace Process, which deserves separate treatment, here are some thoughts on the much anticipated Middle East speech from President Obama:

  1. He was right to urge a realistic public perception of the time it would take for political reform to take hold, noting that the 24 hour news cycle demands instantaneous results, but societal and political reform travels at its own pace. The speed with which governments in Egypt and Tunisia fell should not be equated with the speed with which all autocratic rule will collapse, nor the speed with which functioning democracies will stand up in those countries.
  2. For Egypt in particular to stand as an exemplar of democratisation for other Arab states, the transition must deliver results to the people. Political freedom is fine if it improves the economy but if it doesn't, it won't be long before autocratic rule becomes attractive again as people hanker for the imagined 'good old days'.
  3. So Obama was right to announce financial assistance packages to Egypt and Tunisia. What was implicit in this, of course, was that it would be offered to other countries (such as Syria, for example) who chose the same path towards democratisation. Outside of this, there was a lot of rhetoric and not much policy to support the fine words.
  4. The 'name and shame' file was pretty limp. He kicked Syria's President Assad by advising him to get with the program or get out of the way; he was much less forthright with the Bahraini Government, though he did at least name them. There has been criticism that he didn't name any other autocratic states (in particular Saudi Arabia) but in this type of speech that message is implicit. No need to spell it out – Riyadh and other Gulf states would have read between the lines and will not be happy with what Obama had to say. They will as usual just wait out the unpleasantness, spend  their way out of trouble, and hope for a change of government in the US so that they can get on with business as usual.

It is difficult address an issue with specific policy recommendations while unrest is still continuing, so criticism that the White House has been on the back foot is not necessarily fair. Sometimes you need to let things develop naturally (particularly if you are the US in the Middle East) lest you delegitimise the very protesters you wish to see succeed. The best that can be expected is what Obama did today – outline a set of principles and craft policy around them.

Such speeches are never as dramatic as people would like them to be because they don't result in many if any 'deliverables'. But that doesn't mean that they aren't valuable. It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall of the diwans in the Gulf in particular to see exactly what Arab rulers take away from the speech.

Australia's foreign minister was straight out of the blocks this morning with an op-ed timed to follow the president's speech. Nothing really in it, though, other than a general call to maintain hope in democratisation. The only countries named were Egypt and Tunisia, whose leaders have already fallen, so I doubt that the diwans will be paying much attention.

You can follow the author on twitter @RodgerShanahan.

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