Muslim World Reacts to Obama Speech With Collective Shrug

Posted: May 19, 2011 4:18 PM

If President Obama's aim was for today's speech to make an immediate, meaningful impact across the Middle East, his foreign policy will likely disappointed.  According to early reviews, his address left the "Muslim World" a tad underwhelmed.  A disheartening write-up from the Washington Post:

President Obama’s vow that the United States will “stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights” in the Middle East was received with a mix of apathy and skepticism by people in the region who watched the speech Thursday night.

Some said they saw little news or any discernible shift in policy from an administration that has struggled to formulate a coherent response to the wave of popular uprisings roiling the region this spring.

“My hope was for an unqualified apology” for Obama’s perceived support of dictators, said Hossam Bahgat, a Cairo human rights activist who was among a handful of people who got up from his table to watch the speech at a popular downtown cafe. “And I thought only Obama could do that.”

Baghat said he was expecting stronger words from a president who delivered a speech at Cairo University two years ago that left many in the Middle East feeling that the United States was backing away from its commitment to support democratic reform in the region. “The overwhelming sense was one of deja vu,” Bahgat said. “I kept waiting for Cairo II, but all I heard was Cairo I.”

On the streets of Khan el-Khalili, a historic market in the central Islamic Cairo district, a few people stopped in front of TV sets tuned to the Egyptian channel al-Masriya, which broadcast the president’s speech. Few Egyptians seemed keenly interested in the speech. Many TV sets in the area were showing soap operas and sports channels.

In the Libyan capital, Tripoli, where NATO has stepped up airstrikes in recent weeks, few people in the central market appeared aware that Obama was giving a speech. Most TV sets in shops were tuned to music video channels, though a few switched to Libyan state television when Western reporters walked in the door.

“I don’t think this is going to fix his image. I think it’s too late. He should have said something from the very beginning, but we’ve been waiting for five months,” said Fares Braizat of the Arab Center for Research and Policy studies in Doha, Qatar.

“Most people have realized that what the U.S. does or does not do is no longer important because people took matters into their own hands and decided their own future. So why should people care what he says? America is no longer an issue.

The "Arab street's" collective yawn is not, in and of itself, and indictment of the policy content of the president's remarks -- much of which I found unobjectionable.  It does, however, underscore the point that words from an American president -- even this American president --can only go so far, and that Obama's ability to make a big splash with "major" addresses is waning.  The speech did manage to elicit some ire from Israel, whose Prime Minister is scheduled to arrive in Washington for a summit tomorrow:

“Israel appreciates President Obama’s commitment to peace. Israel believes that for peace to endure between Israelis and Palestinians, the viability of a Palestinian state... cannot come at the expense of the viability of the one and only Jewish state,” the tweets state. “That is why Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress. Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines. Those commitments also ensure Israel’s well-being as a Jewish state by making clear that Palestinian refugees will settle in a future Palestinian state rather than in Israel. Without a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem outside the borders of Israel, no territorial concession will bring peace. Equally, the Palestinians, and not just the United States, must recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, and any peace agreement with them must end all claims against Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu will make clear that the defense of Israel requires an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River.”

One of the most fascinating passages of the president's address (the text of which can be read in full HERE) was his discussion of Iraq as a model of functional, multi-sectarian Middle Eastern democracy:

Indeed, one of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict. In Iraq, we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy. There, the Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence for a democratic process, even as they have taken full responsibility for their own security. Like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress. As they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.

Well said.  Incidentally, Mr. President, how do you suppose this beacon of freedom in the Middle East came to be?