Thursday, 19 May 2011

Obama's fairly vacuous speech

I'm glad I'm not a working journalist who has to cover 'events' such as Obama's speech today. I remember that sinking feeling at the end of a 'major' speech when one realises that the speaker has said nothing of great significance, but without stretching the truth here and there there's no easy way to convey that in an interesting manner to a supine audience, or to satisy editors obsessed with the news cycle. As so often with these speeches, it's what's missing, the links that politicians do not make, that often carry the most significance.
    Obama hasn't understood that Palestinians are just as likely to rise up against their masters, and have just as much right to do so, as any of the Arab peoples who have overthrow their old despots. The double standard inherent at so many levels of this stage must surely jump out at any informed listener.
    Israeli suffering is clearly physical, that of the Palestinians merely psychological - a strange inversion of reality: "For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could get blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own" The 'taught to hate' line is particularly offensive - as if anyone needed guidance to find Israel's behaviour worthy of strongly adverse emotion.
    The future security arrangements would be almost as one-sided as they are today. "Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met." The Palestinian state must be "non-militarised", while the United States commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. Nothing new there, of course.
    The inclusion of democratically elected Hamas representatives in a Palestinian government of national unity "raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel – how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist." Strange how no one ever imagines a Palestinian veto over the inclusion of rightwing racists and expansionists in Israeli governments.
    The United States has now divided the Middle East into five distinct categories of countries facing popular unrest, with different solutions for each:
    Israel - full U.S. commitment to its security and international diplomatic cover for anyone who dares to criticise it. The angry Arabs here should recognize Israel, abandon resistance and go back to fruitless talks in which they have nothing to offer but further obeisance to their Israeli masters. If Israel offers them enough scraps of land to make a viable state, they should be very grateful.
    Egypt and Tunisia - since they've already overthrown our old allies, we'll have to live with it and put on a brave face. Since Egypt is neighbour to Israel and has a large army, we will give it some debt relief and other economic benefits. A little growth and a show of U.S. largesse might help prevent our enemies winning democratic elections.
    Bahrain (home to the Sixth Fleet) - the government here has been quite naughty but we love it really and and we are "committed to its (Bahrain's) security". The government should clean up its act and the opposition should abide by the rule of law, ignore Iranian enticements and join open-ended talks with the government.
    Syria and Yemen - President Assad is not completely a lost cause and President Saleh in Yemen "needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power." In theory, if Assad leads a transition to democracy, he can obtain rehabilitation. An easy position to take, because U.S. policy can be recalibrated at any moment to reflect the latest assessment of how Assad is doing.
    Libya - Gaddafi is a lost cause, it's just a question of time. "When Gaddafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power, decades of provocation will come to an end, and the transition to a democratic Libya can proceed."
    As usual, there are three main determinants in U.S. policy in all these cases:

    1. What does this regime do to serve or subvert Americans interests in the Middle East? The more the regime serves, the softer the U.S. stance, and vice versa.
    2. What are the chances this particular regime will be overthrown by angry Arabs? The more likely it is to fall, the harder the U.S. stance towards the ruler, and vice versa.
    3. If this regime is overthrown, what is likely to take its place and to what extent would the successor regime serve U.S. interests? This is much harder to judge. The conventional wisdom is that this factor has worked in favour of President Assad, whom the Israelis might prefer to see survive.
    The other factors, not specific to Arab regime change, are the chronic distortion of U.S. foreign policy by domestic lobbyists and Washington's broader regional alliances, especially with Saudi Arabia and the patrimonial states in the Gulf.