Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last month provoked mixed reviews. Some said the US president spent too much time apologizing for American behavior in the Middle East; others said his words were just that, words, needing implementation. The only consensus reached was that Obama had been eloquent, but that somehow reminded us of the old Monty Python sketch where a game contestant fails to summarize Proust in 15 seconds, earning the consolatory words: “A good try though and very nice posture.”
Where Obama came up short most flagrantly was in his inability to define a clear position on political freedom, and how to advance it in the Middle East. In fact the president seemed to want to have his cake and eat it too. For example, in referring to the war in Iraq, Obama stated: “Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible.”
Indeed. But if Iraqis are “ultimately” better off without Saddam Hussein, what does that tell us about US policy when it comes to supporting Middle Eastern democracy and human rights? After all, neither diplomacy nor an international consensus would have ever freed Iraqis from being under Saddam’s thumb. So did the US do the right thing in getting rid of the Baath regime by force? Obama avoided addressing that prickly question.
This fuzziness permeated Obama’s later discussion of democracy in the region. The president pointed out: “So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” But then he went on to say that this view did not lessen his commitment to governments that reflect the will of the people. Except that “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone.”
But hadn’t Obama just presumed to know that the Iraq war was beneficial for the Iraqi people, since he felt that they are better off without Saddam? Aren’t Iraqis better off without Saddam because the new system they now live under was imposed on them by an American led-invasion? And weren’t Obama’s bromides in favor of democracy and democratization not also statements implying that he presumed to know what was best for everyone?
If so, then why did the US president not just come out and state the obvious: that democracy, openness and pluralism are indeed better for all states, as is respect for human rights. Why did Obama prefer to avoid rocking the boat when it came to autocratic regimes in the region? Not a word was uttered on actual cases of human rights abuses, whether in Egypt, the country hosting him, or in any other part of the Middle East. Clearly, the president, for all his high-flying rhetoric, preferred to fall back on the aversion of political realists to involving the US in the region’s domestic affairs.
Equally interesting was what the president had to say about the Christian Maronite and Coptic minorities.
“Among some Muslims, there is a disturbing tendency to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of another’s,” he said. “The richness of religious diversity must be upheld — whether it is for Maronites in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt.”
This advice Obama placed under the rubric of “religious freedom.” This was strange, because the problem of minorities in the Arab world is usually more a political than a religious one. What the Copts would like more of is political power, not the freedom to exercise their religion. As for the Maronites, their sense of decline is attached not to the fact that they cannot practice their religion, but that they feel their political power is waning.
All this leads to a disconcerting conclusion that Obama has few coherent views of political freedom in the Middle East. He overemphasized religion while underemphasizing how the US might address political matters, such as what to do about dictatorial regimes. He also failed to address the absence of democracy in the Middle East in illegitimate states that fail to fulfill the aspirations of their citizens; or what to do about minorities denied political power, both Muslim and non-Muslim.
Obama submerged his Cairo speech in the holy water of religion, but it is freedom, the failure of the Arab state, and the lack of accountability of regional regimes that are more central to the dilemmas the Middle East faces today. In one word, it is about politics, and on this Obama was too busy being polite to his listeners to raise the difficult questions he promised to raise at the start of what, in retrospect, sounded like a puzzling homily.
(Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on Harvard’s Middle East Strategy blog)