When I listened to Obama’s speech delivered at the State Department earlier today in preparation for my next column, I didn’t find anything terribly interesting about the section on Israel and Palestine. Indeed, what little news there was in that section consisted of confirmations that the administration flatly opposes the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the U.N., which in itself is hardly shocking. So I was more than a little surprised that there would be such a flood of manufactured outrage over one of the least remarkable parts of the speech. At most, what Obama said represents the tiniest of incremental changes, which for some reason some administration supporters want to applaud as “bold” and “daring” and many critics want to denounce as treacherous. It isn’t bold, and it isn’t treacherous.
This is very much like the outrage over the demand for a settlement freeze in the past two years. Opposition to settlements has been standard U.S. policy for decades, but Obama created some waves by making an issue out of it. The key to his opponents’ success on settlements was pretending that something completely unremarkable and entirely reasonable was an unspeakably monstrous idea, which then lead to Obama quickly backpedaling away from doing anything to advance his unremarkable consensus position. That seems to be the pattern. First, Obama re-states the rather bland U.S. policy consensus. Next, his critics treat this as a dramatic and radical change to current policy when it isn’t anything of the sort, and the Israeli government pretends that the consensus view is some new, horrible imposition that cannot be tolerated. At the same time, Obama’s political foes declare that he has betrayed Israel, which ought to reveal them as buffoons but instead somehow makes them seem more “credible” on foreign policy. After all of this, Obama backs down and stops saying anything about the uncontroversial position that caused the phony controversy.
I don’t really understand why Obama gave this speech, I don’t see what he was hoping to accomplish with it, and there seems to be general agreement that it was fairly underwhelming and lacking significant proposals of what the U.S. is going to do differently. As I argue in the new column, the lack of attention to Libya was striking, and it was all the more so given the Libyan war’s supposed importance for “aligning our values and interests” and supporting protest movements elsewhere. The complete omission of any mention of the GCC’s intervention in Bahrain was also very odd. The two areas other than Israel/Palestine where U.S. policy is most directly implicated right now (i.e., Libya and the Gulf) received scant or no attention, and what attention Obama did pay to Libya was essentially a repeat of his March 28 speech justifying intervention.
Update: Exum concludes his reaction with these remarks:
Overall, though, I was underwhelmed and suspect most Arabs will be as well. But maybe the early analysis is right, and this speech was more aimed at a U.S. audience than at the peoples of the region itself.
If that’s the case, I definitely don’t understand why he gave the speech. To put it bluntly, most of the U.S. audience isn’t terribly concerned about administration policy towards Bahrain or Syria or even Egypt, and Americans are mainly concerned about Libya now only because the administration dragged the U.S. into Libya. If the speech was geared towards the small fraction of the population in the U.S. that follows event in the region closely, I still don’t see what it accomplished.