President Obama has often used great speeches to define critical issues. Given the historical setting – dramatic changes taking place across the Arab world, the killing of Bin Laden, and the floundering Arab-Israeli peace process coming up against the September deadline the president once suggested for the establishment of a Palestinian state – the White House saw this as the appropriate time for another "great speech".
For an American audience, it was an important speech. The president's analysis of the Arab spring was thoughtful and challenging, as was his resolve to "reset" relations with the broader Middle East in the wake of profound changes occurring that region. By embracing and reframing a "democracy agenda" and focusing on the need for economic development and empowerment, Obama shoved aside the neoconservative claptrap and Islamophobic nonsense that has seized the much of the right and infected some of the left.
For Americans, then, it might be fair to say that the speech was challenging and uplifting. It may even have been a useful speech for US policy-makers, although our current "slash and burn" Congress may be disinclined to act in support of the president's initiatives – dooming them before they get off the ground.
But if the intended audience was in the Arab world, then sadly, the speech fell flat.
Arabs already understand that their region is undergoing a profound transformation. And they know and either welcome or dread the challenges they will now face in constructing a new political order. But these, as the president acknowledged, are their transformations and their challenges.
I believe that most Arabs did not need help in understanding the significance or the consequences of this moment in their history. Arabs were not looking to the US president for an analysis of their circumstances. What they want from America may differ in some details from country to country, but a core concern shared by most Arabs is that America demonstrates leadership in resolving the Palestinian issue.
In anticipation of Obama's speech, I asked a wide range of Arab friends and acquaintances, from revolutionaries and intellectuals to government officials, what they hoped to hear from the US president. They offered a diverse menu of concerns – Libyans, for example, want arms; Egyptians and Tunisians want economic assistance and investment to create needed employment – and this they will get. Yet, two strong points of consensus emerge on the issues they hoped Obama would address.
My Arab interlocutors made clear that the US is still paying a price for Bush era policies, and that President Obama is still suffering from a "post Cairo" letdown. That speech raised expectations that were not fulfilled, shaking confidence in US leadership. So, they uniformly cautioned against another "big speech" that promised a lot and delivered too little. And because the 2009 Cairo University speech ramped up expectations about the president's commitment to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, failure to address this issue now, or to address it only in generalities or with more vague promises "to advance the peace process", risks either deepening mistrust or provoking scorn or rage.
In recent days, the Palestinian issue has been foregrounded by the resignation of former Senator George Mitchell and by what is expected to be Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's triumphal appearance before the US Congress. While Mitchell's much-heralded appointment as special envoy raised hopes among some in the Middle East, his tenure was disappointing. His departure now is being viewed as an admission of collapse in the process – in which he and the president had invested a great deal of political capital. So, with Netanyahu and Congress in agreement on the need to block the recently concluded Palestinian reconciliation pact and the Palestinian leadership's efforts to seek United Nations recognition of their state in September, the speech's failure to address these deeply felt Arab concerns constitutes a glaring omission and a lack of serious commitment.
On that January day in 2009 when Barack Obama took the oath of office, he did not receive a magic wand. Instead, he was handed the shovel his predecessor had used to dig deep holes across the Middle East. It is also a sorry fact of which Arabs are only too aware that politics in Washington limits the ability of even the best-intentioned president to take a decisive stand on issues involving Israel. But Obama raised expectations that he would shift Washington and that he understood that resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict was not only important for Israel and the Arabs, but was also "in the national security interests of the United States". This makes the failure of the president's speech to be decisive and direct on the parameters of a solution, a timetable for its implementation and sanctions for non-delivery all the more disturbing.
Recognising the new realities in the Middle East is important. But recognising that Arabs see Palestinian rights as a central concern and have grown weary of what they feel is America's enabling of Israel's bad behaviour is important, too. The president got the new realities part right, but he missed a vital opportunity on Palestine.