Can Obama’s Middle East Speech Right the Region?

Is human blood more valuable than oil? 

As protesters are killed in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, and war is unrolling in Libya, President Barack Obama on Thursday must answer to what role the United States will play in the region and if this role will be different from our past one. His answer will be important not just to the people in this region (including Israel), but to everyday Americans at home, finally providing a clear context and direction to U.S policy in the region. 

The past few months have been breathtaking in their political development.  Through it all, the United States has assumed a variety of roles and stances that have left many wondering as to what are the real motives and intent of the Obama Administration. As Egypt was undergoing its revolution, the U.S. stance on Mubarak’s actions was at times at odds with popular Egyptian sentiment. Our current and past military involvement in the area puts the United States in the awkward situation of having to justify our actions (or lack there of) in specific countries and whether these actions match up to the values that we espouse. In his speech, the President needs to clarify his Obama Doctrine and what it portends for citizens grappling against regime repression and the regimes themselves.

While Obama can claim that he is simply utilizing the powers vested in him through the War Powers Act, his decision to intervene in Libya has certainly set as much precedent as the Bush Doctrine.  Unlike George W. Bush who acquired congressional approval prior to initiating the Iraq war, Obama intervened in Libya first and justified his actions to Congress later.  While both the Bush Doctrine and Obama Doctrine insist upon the validity of pre-emption, the Obama Doctrine further contends that regime-backed violence against its citizenry also warrants action, not just if the regime threatens our core interests. It is also beset with the same dangerous ambiguity as its predecessor. Nobody knows what constitutes an appropriate cause for intervention and there are already many situations cropping up in places such as Syria and Bahrain that beg the question.

The historical presence of the United States in North Africa and the Middle East does not make Obama’s job any easier. We have had a long, often downplayed practice of abetting dictatorships and prioritizing our oil supply over the advancement of democracy and human rights such as the CIA reinstatement of the Shah in Iran in the 1950s or the steady flow of U.S. dollars to Mubarak while he maintained a sham democracy in Egypt. For the people in these regions who have been living with the direct results of our policies for decades, they will not be easily swayed by grandiloquence or proffered promises of partnership.

If Obama truly wants to build a new set of relations, he will need to be honest and forthright with the people of North Africa and the Middle East about our previous involvement in the region. An acknowledgement of our role and its ramifications will show that Obama is serious in breaking new grounds.  If done right, his speech could reset relations. Anything else will leave us stuck.

Photo credit: Muhammad on Flickr