Obama Speeches Fail to Excite

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    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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Barack Obama gave two major foreign policy speeches last week. The speeches were seen as an attempt to both delineate his administration’s approach to the ongoing turmoil in Afghanistan as well as to lay out for future administrations what Mr. Obama considers to be the U.S.’s proper role on the world stage. It is an indication of how deeply the debacles and the missteps of the last six years have scarred the Obama brand that almost every major speech that comes from the White House is now greeted with a great deal of skepticism and criticism.

Commenting on Mr. Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday, a Gulf Times editorial characterized the speech as trying to accomplish many things with one policy address: “Obama’s address, his latest attempt at defining his elusive foreign policy doctrine as he barrels from global crisis to global crisis, was many things. It was an explanatory note for historians who begin sizing up his legacy in just two and a half years — and who will ask for instance, why did Obama intervene in Libya but not in Syria? It was a settling of political scores: Obama has bristled in recent months at criticism from the likes of John McCain and other Republicans who brand him feckless and say he is bullied by Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

Signs that Mr. Obama has perhaps lost some of his luster are evident in various op-eds and commentaries. For example, Al Arabiya’s Hisham Melhem a ccuses the U.S. president of using speeches to avoid making difficult decisions: “President Obama’s political career is marked by seminal speeches. He is a compelling orator….However, in the last couple of years the master has begun to lose some of his magic. Speeches became almost his only shield to fend off what looks at times as endless withering wave after wave of sharp arrows from his admittedly merciless and at many times unfair Republican critics, to his growing legions of international detractors including disillusioned old supporters. Obama’s West Point commencement address of May 28 belongs to this latter category and will not be remembered as a seminal speech.”

Meanwhile, a recent editorial by the UAE daily The National outlines reasons that Obama’s speech was considered a disappointment, cautioning that more throwing money at the various crises in the region cannot make up for a failed policy: “In this region, disappointment with Mr Obama comes as a result of what he said and what he didn’t say. Start with the only tangible announcement, of a counterterrorism ‘partnership fund’ of $5 billion (Dh18bn). This is welcome, especially for the government in Yemen, which is struggling to contain the Al Qaeda elements in the south. But the disappointment is that this money is likely to be used to continue with the drone strikes — which kill civilians, fuel extremism and, therefore, threaten the rest of the Peninsula. A failed policy does not need further funds.”

Yedinoth Ahronoth’s Alon Pinkas also attempts to read the tea leaves in Obama’s speech by focusing on what the U.S. president did not say rather than what he did, expressing concern for Mr. Obama’s failure to mention Israel and the Middle East peace process even once during his West Point speech: “It was an ‘all-inclusive’ address delivered by President Barack Obama on Wednesday at the graduation ceremony of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. All included, apart for Israel and the peace process. Not even as a footnote….And he failed to mention ‘our’ Middle East. Neither with affection and concern, nor with criticism and frustration. Neither as a foreign policy target, nor as an American interest. He didn’t express a commitment to the ally Israel, or an aspiration to give the Palestinians a state of their own….Those in Israel who are satisfied with the speech do not completely understand its destructive ramifications.”

Others though saw a different side of Mr. Obama, one that has grown more realistic of the limits of U.S. power in the world. And that realization, according to Al Arabiya’s Abdulrahman al-Rashed couldn’t have come a moment later: “U.S. President Barack Obama’s West Point speech on Wednesday confirms that he views the world more realistically and has a deeper understanding of the world than before. It would have been possible to avoid years of suffering and mitigate threats if the American government had fully understood developments on the ground at an early stage. Despite that, it’s important to work with the U.S. all over again to curb the chaos created by terrorism in the region and to stop the tragedy in Syria.”

Similarly, the Gulf Times’ editorial notes that the West Point speech hit “the nail on the head…. Barack Obama perhaps made the most important speech as president of the United States when he told graduates at the prestigious West Point military academy that America’s trigger-happy responses to events around the world have done the country more harm than good….Obama’s speech yesterday will no doubt resonate well with the critics of American foreign policy and also the people of those nations who have been at the receiving end of the U.S. military machine….But the question is whether America will follow through on Obama’s words in letter and spirit. Going by history, however, there is little room for optimism.”

Some have suggested, however, that the weakness that seems to have tied Obama’s hands might not be his own doing. Reflecting on what he considers as the U.S. administration’s excessive accommodation of Iran, Arab News’ Hassan Barari, believes that “Since his inauguration in January 2009, US President Barack Obama has been following an ineffective foreign policy in the Middle East. Almost every observer would argue that the decline in the American influence in the region — under Obama — could not be more obvious….Over the last decade and a half, Iran has benefited from the countless mistakes of the United States. By design or default, the way the United States dealt with the transition in a post-Saddam Iraq has only boosted the influence of Iran in Iraq and paved the way for the current sectarian strife….Perhaps, the United States has its own reasons to disengage from the region….President Obama can continue dreaming but a new equilibrium in the Gulf and the Levant can only materialize if Iran changes course.”

Even on Afghanistan, there are unhappy voices. A recent Gulf Today editorial suggests rather than pulling the plug on Afghanistan, as the U.S. president seemed to be doing during his speech in Afghanistan, America and the international community should become even more engaged to make sure Afghanistan is properly rebuilt: “U.S. President Barack Obama has proclaimed: ‘We have to recognise that Afghanistan will not be a perfect place, and it is not America’s responsibility to make it one.’ The words are not easy to digest coming as they do after thousands of innocent Afghan civilians have been killed or wounded and at least 2,181 members of the US military itself have died during the nearly 13-year Afghan war….with both candidates on the ballot in next month’s Afghan presidential election runoff — Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah — vowing to quickly sign the security agreement, Obama appeared more confident that there would be a continued US troop presence after 2014. The international community should extend all help to the nation so that it regains peace and stability. After all, that is what the people and the government of Afghanistan aspire for.”

A Saudi Gazette editorial, meanwhile, characterizes Obama’s speech as premature, especially since Afghanistan president Ahmed Kharzai is still in office and still opposes the U.S.-Afghanistan security agreement: “A piece of poor U.S. presidential judgment has gone largely unremarked. When Barack Obama jetted in this week for his nighttime visit to Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, he set out the plan for the presence of U.S. troops in the country beyond the agreed withdrawal date or all NATO combat forces at the end of this year….Whatever the arguments, the agreement is unsigned. Yet Obama felt himself able to speak at Bagram as if it were a done deal, throwing in the odd ‘likely’ more in relation to future military assessments than in deference to the fact that nothing had actually been nailed down between the two governments….The problem is that democracy is based on law. The deal to keep U.S. troops in-country currently has no legal validity because Karzai refuses to sign. Until the new president takes out his pen, Obama was entirely wrong to pretend that he could act on the plan’s unratified provisions.”

Finally, the Oman Tribune editorial believes the U.S. decision to disengage from Afghanistan is an insensible one, seeing that the only party that will benefit from that decision are the Taliban: “The Americans came, saw and left Iraq in tatters. And they are going to do it again. The Americans came, saw and are planning to leave Afghanistan in tatters….Perhaps, the American decision to leave the Afghans to decide on what they want to do with their country is the result of their not being allowed a free hand. The Americans must understand that they did not come as conquerors in that country….Most sensible Afghans realise the necessity of having American forces for some more time. They know that their troops are ill-equipped and not adequately trained and will need more time to take over security functions totally. Obama’s decision is akin to throwing them into the jaws of the Taliban….The losers will be the Afghan people who have only seen war, bloodshed and devastation for the last few decades and will see more violence in the future.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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