By Ellie Merle
A key aspect of U.S. foreign policy as stated numerous times by George W. Bush has been to ‘spread democracy in the Middle East.’ It was this guiding concept that lay behind the Iraq War of 2003, where the U.S. intervened despite widespread international opposition and hostility from Iraqi citizens, in part, to establish democratic institutions and respect for human rights and expression. In the Arab Spring, people all across the Middle East are fighting, and dying, for the democratic rights America has said we wished they had. This seems to be an answer to the U.S. pleas for change in the Middle East. Or is it?
As emblematic of much of his presidency, Obama is faced with the challenge of reconciling the ramifications of a former administration’s actions while still pursuing his own policy interests. The uprisings in the Middle East present Obama with a conundrum: how does one reconcile a ‘promise’ (a word Obama frequently attributes to his approach to American politics) of spreading democracy with economic, political and security realities? And how does one formulate a stable foreign policy in a region so diverse, volatile and intermingled with U.S. security interests as the Middle East?
Additionally, in this speech Obama endorsed a two state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along 1967 borders. While this statement may initially appear as a bold shift in U.S. foreign policy, it is rather a forceful reiteration of what has for some time been the U.S. policy to the Israeli conflict. His push for the two-state solution is appropriate given Palestine’s plans to petition the U.N. for statehood this coming fall, which if the U.S. does not act soon, will serve as a major political embarrassment for the U.S. and Israel.
More significantly, the move is needed given recent upheaval in the Middle East. Obama poignantly states that, “We cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace… the world is moving too fast.” Due to the uprisings, movements for self-identification have been strengthened, holding two important geopolitical implications for Israel. Regimes that traditionally been friendly with Israel, such as in Egypt have lost or are losing power. Secondly, with the coalition between Fatah and Hamas, the opposition against Israel is much stronger. Finally, on the local level, outrage and mobilization against Israel is growing. Increasingly, people are identifying Israel’s presence in the Middle East as synonymous with the narratives for freedom against oppressive leaders. The parallels could not have been clearer on May 15th when coordinated protests occurred along the 1949 armistice lines with Syria and Lebanon and also in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Egypt. Significantly, it strikes many Palestinians as contradictory that the U.S. supports democracy and the right to self-determination, but yet refuses Palestinian’s their claim to statehood. As Obama stated, “precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth: the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.” Thus, Obama’s calling for the two-state solution should be viewed as acting in line with Israel’s best interest, as was reiterated in his speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on May 22nd.
On a larger level, the calling for a two state solution can be seen in the context of Obama’s attempt to reformulate a more consistent foreign policy towards the Middle East. The U.S. hopes in the future to not support or fund regimes, such as in Syria, Egypt or Libya that are guilty of human rights abuses. Nor will it stand in the way of people, such as the many Palestinians, who seek to find a route to their own self-determination. Nevertheless, reflective of the complexity of these issues, his speech has received mixed reactions from all sides.
Many throughout the Middle East have critiqued the limit of U.S. support, even after Obama’s speech. Reinforcement for human rights fought for in the Arab Spring can only go so far when the U.S. is deeply restrained by financial troubles at home and the military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. Likewise, Palestinians feel the U.S. statements are contradictory as their plan to apply for statehood to the U.N. in September was denounced by Obama– to them, an infringement on their own rights. In turn, Netanyahu has rebuked that Israel cannot return to ‘indefensible’ 67 borders. While Obama has attempted to clarify the U.S. mission abroad, due to the complexity of the issues in the Middle East, there are many interests that still lay in conflict which will prove a challenge to reconcile in the coming years. The U.S. must balance its ‘unshakeable friendship’ with Israel, and its relationship with other nations such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, with its interest in the stability of the region and in protecting the rights of the people living in the region. Likewise, Obama ought to find the right level of involvement in the Arab Spring, balancing its commitment to reform without overextending U.S. resources.