President Barack Hussein Obama, on June 4, 2009, gave a speech in Cairo, Egypt. This speech was widely praised both in America and abroad when Obama delivered it, as being both an overture to the Muslim world and a redefinition of some key American policies in the region (or, at the very least, a respectful explanation of continuing policies).
That was then, this is now. Things, to put it mildly, have changed a bit. President Obama should realize the opportunity this presents, and should soon give a sequel to his first Cairo speech, because the situation on the ground is moving so rapidly in the entire North African and Middle Eastern arena. It will be tough for Obama to thread the needle on what the emerging American policy is towards the uprisings spontaneously erupting in so many different countries (with so many different political situations) -- because America has always dealt with the region's various types of government on a case-by-case basis, according to our national interests (which can be largely summed up as: "oil"). Also because the current situation is so fluid. But just because it will be a hard speech to write doesn't mean Obama shouldn't make the effort, as soon as is humanly possible.
Of course, the president is not likely to travel to Cairo at this point, since the security situation there is still in flux as well. But Obama does not need to be physically present in Egypt to capitalize on the fact that his initial speech was delivered from Cairo University. Obama could give the speech from the Oval Office or a podium in the West Wing, in today's interconnected world, with the same results as if he were addressing Egyptian students in person. As long as he made it clear in his opening remarks that he was again speaking directly to Egypt's youth -- and to the youth of the entire region -- it would be likely received with the same weight.
Obama, in his initial Cairo speech in 2009, had some very inclusive things to say about America and Islam in general, and then went on to address a number of pressing regional issues: violent extremism and Al Qaeda, our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, nuclear weapons and Iran, religious freedom both in the Muslim world and in the West, women's rights and human rights, and economic development and stability.
But he also addressed the question of democracy in the region. Here is all of what he had to say (the full transcript is available at the official White House site) on the subject:
I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.
That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.
Now, there is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments -- provided they govern with respect for all their people.
This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they're out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.
Now, obviously, events have changed the situation on the ground dramatically since Obama gave this speech over a year and a half ago. In the last two months, two governments have fallen -- including Egypt's, where Obama gave his speech -- and many more are in danger of falling (to some degree or another). Libya is currently in the midst of what can only be termed a civil war, as a result of the wave of "people power" spreading throughout the region. Leaders even of countries that have not yet had mass demonstrations are scrambling to make political reforms happen as fast as they possibly can, in the hopes of keeping their populace happy enough that these leaders may remain in power.
Which is why it would be a good time for Obama to update his earlier speech. Don't get me wrong, though -- by suggesting this, I am not agreeing with the various Obama critics who have been Monday-morning-quarterbacking every move Obama has so far made in response to the crises we've seen so far. It is easy for people -- no matter what their specific complaint may be -- to sit in a television studio and expound about what Obama should or should not be doing. Such nitpicking is easy for them, because such people aren't responsible for American diplomats' lives in these countries, nor are they privy to what is being said and done behind the scenes. So I'm in no way agreeing with people who come up with fantasies such as declaring a "no-tank zone" in Libya -- without any clue what that would entail for the United States military. Or those that insist that "we should have seen this coming" -- without specifying how, exactly, a spontaneous outburst of another country's population could be foretold by the C.I.A. or any other American intelligence-gathering agency.
On the whole, the Obama administration has been doing a pretty good job so far of reacting to the crises as they have happened. Where America has a fair degree of leverage, sometimes all it takes is a phone call to a king or a military leader to stop the violence from erupting in the streets. But not every country with people protesting on these streets is Egypt, or Bahrain. In some of these countries we have very little leverage -- or even influence -- at all. In Libya, we had virtually none, which is one reason why there was no check on the violent reaction by the government or the military.
But just because we don't have every dictator's number (or every country's military) on speed-dial doesn't mean that Obama couldn't attempt to bridge the gap between those who call for unrealistic levels of American involvement and those who are merely suggesting that Obama show some moral support for the people in the streets.
When the Egyptian protests were just getting started, Saudi Arabia reportedly warned Obama to back President Mubarak to the hilt, because they were afraid of exactly what has now happened -- with the revolutionary victory in Egypt, many other countries in the region are saying, in essence: "It's our turn now!" While it is easy to say the Saudi monarchs were only looking out for their own best interests, there is an important point to be made in all the democratic jubilation we now see. When should America decide that the people on the streets are right, and that the leader we've been backing (to one degree or another) must go? This is a very tricky tightrope to walk -- because America can't simply throw our lot in with any group who is able to raise a crowd in any country in the world. There's a reason for this caution, and it is that sooner or later we're going to throw our lot in with a group that does not succeed -- and this will have diplomatic repercussions both within that country (when we have to deal with governments who succeed in quelling uprisings) and in other countries as well.
A moral case can be made that we shouldn't deal with any government that brutally puts down uprisings. But this is naive, at best, and ignores both reality and recent history. Tiananmen Square didn't stop us from awarding China "most-favored nation" trading rights (although there were plenty who argued it indeed should have stopped us). We can't simply ignore Iran and hope they'll go away. Actually, we could -- since that's our basic attitude towards Castro's Cuba. Even during such famous "people power" revolutions in the past, American presidents (from both parties) were extremely cautious in throwing our support behind the people in the street -- sometimes taking months and months to recognize the new governments (or even offer our support to the uprising), even when it was in our interests to do so. This is historic fact, which should be considered when judging Obama's actions of late. There is a reason to be cautious when dealing with a revolutionary mob, and that reason is that sometimes revolutions don't work out for the best, for all concerned.
But, even having said all of that, Obama has an opportunity here to address the bigger picture. Both the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been insisting that they have been consistent in what they've been saying about the various protest movements in the region: that they condemn all violence by any party, especially on unarmed civilians; that they support democratic rights such as free and fair elections; and that they urge leaders across the region to reform their political system to address the peoples' cries for change. These should be the core themes of a "second Cairo speech" by Obama, where he builds and expands on what he said about democracy in his first speech. By avoiding specifics, Obama will likely disappoint many in the American political sphere (the folks mentioned previously calling on Obama to do this, that, or the other), but by sticking to a few core beliefs which America universally supports he would go a long way towards sending a message to the people in the region about where America's priorities truly lie. Even this may disappoint many -- especially those currently dying on the streets -- because they would much prefer a more robust response (perhaps even an American military response). But Obama cannot promise, for example, that every street protest in the world will take place under an American military umbrella -- nor should he, because it is simply not realistic (or wise) to even contemplate saying any such thing.
As I said, writing such a speech presents many difficulties. Obama would, by giving such a speech directed to "the people of Cairo, and of the entire region," run the risk of disappointing those in the region and here at home who are fervently wishing America would "do something" in the midst of these crises. Obama would need to craft a speech which would speak to the people on the streets, to monarchs in countries friendly to us, to leaders in countries in which we have little (or no) real influence, and to our outright enemies. Obama has the chance to lay out some broad principles which we support, while at the same time reiterating the fact that each country's people must decide for themselves what is right for their country. America cannot -- and should not -- attempt to dictate to any country what form of government it has, but this does not preclude us from affirming some basic principles which we feel are universal.
President Obama needs to consider giving such an address, and spelling out what he stands for -- and, by extension. what the United States of America stands for -- in North Africa, the Middle East, and beyond. While such a speech would be all but guaranteed to disappoint many looking for concrete promises of American action, it would go a long way towards defining what our country's new relationship with the region will be in the near future, and what universal principles we stand for. It would show leadership to both an American audience and to a worldwide audience. People in America need to hear this type of leadership, and the people in the region who are risking everything -- including their lives -- to protest tyranny absolutely deserve to hear from Obama at this point. Obama, in his first speech (while talking about economic progress) said: "human progress cannot be denied." While true, it also seems to follow that human political progress cannot be ignored by President Obama, either. Instead, the progress already made (and the progress people are currently risking their lives to make) should be formally addressed. As soon as possible.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
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-- Chris Weigant