People across the Arab world are bitterly trying to reconcile President Obama’s inspirational Cairo Speech of June 2009 with the Administration’s halting response to the Arab Spring. In the past month many Arabs were angered by Obama’s rebuff of Palestinian statehood and the Administration has sent mixed messages regarding elections and political inclusion in Pakistan and across North Africa. The contrast between the aspirations of the Cairo speech and fragmented U.S. policy in the region is perplexing and weakens the credibility of the Administration.
Remember “the speech?” In 2008 candidate Obama pledged to give a major speech from a Muslim country should he be elected. The goal was to repair relations with the Muslim world, and Obama sat for an interview with al Arabiyah within a week of taking office as well as gave speeches in Ankara and al Aznar University Cairo in the early months of his presidency.
During the Cairo speech Obama attempted to distance himself from the Bush Administration’s policies, particularly on Iraq. Obama highlighted the historical contributions of Muslim civilization as well as the power of religion—Islam in particular—as a force for good.
To sustained applause Obama also pointed to 7 challenge areas that particularly bedevil the Arab world, including lack of democracy, the poor status of women, economic freedom within the rule of law, and literacy and development. At the time I was told by several people within the Administration that this speech was considered the way forward for the U.S. government and that people would look back on the speech as a defining moment reminiscent of JFK or Ronald Reagan.
However, prior to Cairo there was no planning for a major new foreign policy initiative in the region. There was no budgeting, nor strategic plan, no new interagency team set up in advance of the speech to operationalize the President’s vision. Indeed, most people at the State Department and USAID were surprised by the speech, and in the days that followed had to scramble to come up with an “implement Cairo” cell at the State Department. Today, the Administration’s fact sheets regarding democracy in the Middle East largely point to continued funding for Bush-era programs, most notably the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI).
Fast-forward to December 2010. A young street-vendor set himself on fire in response to the degradation and oppression he felt under the authoritarian Tunisian regime. Within six weeks not only had Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fallen, but to everyone’s amazement, so had Hosni Mubarak, a modern pharaoh of the largest and most powerful Arab state. Protests spread like wildfire to Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and their neighbors.
What of the Obama Administration—what was it doing? Did it spend 2009-2010 preparing to support the type of democratic groundswell President Obama vocalized in 2009?
The answer is “no.” Obama and his foreign policy team seems to have been caught totally off-guard by events in the region; many embassies were on their own to respond; European allies badgered Obama to help protect their oil interests in Libya until he finally gave in to them; and there was no formal statement of policy for four months.
Indeed, the iconic image of American foreign policy in the spring of 2011 will be President Obama kicking a soccer ball with children in Latin America while ordering U.S. airmen into harm’s way over the skies of Libya.
What is truly telling, from a policy perspective, is that it took until May 19 for the White House and the State Department to offer comprehensive statements of policy about what was occurring in the region. In short, it took months for the Administration to grasp the significance of events and have the courage to take a stand for freedom during the Arab Spring.
Of course, at any time in the early weeks of the Arab Spring the White House could have said, “these revolutions are precisely in accord with the aspirations of the Cairo Speech…we will support ordered liberty, the rule of law, and representative government wherever and whenever.” But, it didn’t. General policy guidance, intended for international audiences, could have been disseminated to embassies and the press. Obama could have delivered a Cairo II speech, which would have elucidated U.S. foreign policy and tied together our long-term objectives throughout the region—including in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Israel.
This is not to say that individual government officials have not made contributions, the most notable being the U.S. ambassador in Syria who has resolutely engaged the Syrian people and documented the regime’s barbarity to the world. Nevertheless, this is an isolated instance, not the consolidated work of a strategic approach to U.S. policy in the region.
In the end, we should not be surprised that the Administration’s words are out of sync with its deeds. Ask the Iranian people, who a week after the Cairo speech rose up in protest against allegedly rigged elections, but received virtually no support from President Obama. Indeed, it appears that this Administration’s approach to foreign policy has been the “big speech”—and no speech was bigger than Cairo—but no concrete plans for implementation. It seems that the Arab street was in tune with the sentiments of the speech, but for the Administration it was just a speech—another rhetorical flourish with an implementation strategy. This chasm between words and deeds is causing domestic voters and citizens abroad to question this government’s commitment to democracy in the region.