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Mon. April 22, 2019
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Obama’s speech, Obama’s sorrows
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Last Thursday U.S. President Obama spoke about Middle East hailing the State Department and his “finest” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for “marking new chapter in American diplomacy” and for doing all the diplomatic navigation while his staff deliberated on laying out a White House position. The resultant policy--the United States “will promote reform across the region, and… support transitions to democracy” with “all our influence”. The President couldn’t really put it otherwise. Arabs revolted against torpid dictatorships and corruption to protect their human dignity, knocking down regimes in Egypt and Tunisia like card tables. Elsewhere, in Syria and Libya especially, protestors have faced armed resistance by stubborn, egocentric leaders. Those dictators, Obama said, must “get out of the way.” It was important for him to emphasize the unifying theme of basic human rights, which the Arabs have claimed. To me, the most eloquent moment was when he said that the United States is concerned not only with the stability of nations but also with the self-determination of individuals. Of course, Obama mentioned all the usual disclaimers: short-term interests, cost-benefit consideration (e.g. intervention in Libya) and security commitments, meaning U.S. delicate ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Obama’s speeches are known for their special blend of idealism and realpolitik. In his Nobel peace address, he famously said that that at times even unilateral force will be justified, while acknowledging the “imperfections of men and the limits of reason”. In his Thursday’s address he warned that America will not tolerate cross-border aggression in the region, as in the Gulf War, which is to say that it is a U.S. core interest to ensure that no single state makes an attempt to dominate Middle East, and that everything else is secondary. Obama obviously recognizes a great opportunity for the United States to do something to support the ongoing democratic wave “after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region”. One is tempted to ask—what was America’s thinking about during the past 20 or so years? Still, it is a noble agenda, and Obama wants to pursue it with restraint and humbleness. Democratic change will take decades to solidify and will encounter pitfalls along the way that can easily reverse it. In the end, we get a blurred picture. Aside of announcing financial and other support for Tunisia and Egypt, Obama has not offered any particular course of action. He spoke for a while about the eternal Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said he wants resolution based on 1967 borders, but few expect progress in that direction. It is understandable. His remarks reveal the nation’s rankling over its diminished or imperfect influence abroad, while facing serious domestic problems and painful legacies of Iraq and Afghanistan, and other morbid issues.

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