Obama not abandoning the Middle East
By Ray Hanania
Saudi Gazette Sunday Feb. 2, 2014/Creators Syndicate
President Barack Obama delivered his 6th State of the Union address on Tuesday and many in the Arab world were left wondering about his commitment to Middle East peace. After all, he barely talked about the topic during his lengthy remarks, which lasted just under one hour. In the Middle East, Arab leaders may speak for hours – they are in love with hearing themselves. But in America, it’s different.
In today’s world, things like presidential speeches are measured by how many Americans watch them on TV. Despite the rise of Twitter and social media, TV still dominates American communications, although the number of Twitter posts continues to increase. With that in mind, the State of the Union and the Middle East are not the most important topics for Americans. Twice as many people watched a recent football play-off than watched Obama’s speech this week.
So how important is the speech? From the standpoint of Middle East policy, it is not very important at all, although when Obama does mention the Middle East, we have to take it as evidence that he believes the Middle East and Israeli-Palestinian peace are still important.
So don’t worry folks. Obama is not abandoning the Middle East or his peace mission, although some believe he really never had a substantive mission to pursue at all. Obama has more important issues to speak about and mend.
During the past year, he has faced several major stumbles and failures including his inability to pass “immigration reform” or “gun control” measures, and the catastrophic public relations screw-up, the launch of a website to help Americans participate in the cornerstone of his administration, which is healthcare reform.
Here’s some background on Obama’s speech and how it fits into the American psyche that might help you relax and not get all upset because Obama didn’t sound like a dictator spouting about the evils of the enemy or ignoring the needs of the people.
Ever since the founding of America, presidents have delivered a speech often called “The State of the Union” at the start of every year. The topics and the length have varied widely, depending on the challenges facing America and speaking abilities of the president delivering it.
President William Howard Taft gave the longest speech, 27,651 words in 1910. America’s first President, George Washington gave the shortest speech, 1,089 words, in 1790.
On Tuesday, President Obama delivered his 6th State of the Union speech since his election in 2008, although technically his 2009 speech was called “An Address to Congress.” Obama’s speeches have followed patterns set by President Bill Clinton and have averaged 7,000 words, compared to President George W. Bush who said far less like his father, President George H.W. Bush, or 5,000 words.
A speech of 7,000 words sounds like a lot, but it isn’t. It’s the equivalent of eight newspaper columns averaging 900 words. Newspaper columnists like myself try to address one topic per column. But presidents address many.
Obama’s speech addressed more than 40 topics mostly about the American economy, jobs, education and immigration. That’s what most Americans care about. They don’t really care about the Middle East, the “Arab Spring” or progress toward democracy at all. Americans do have a one-track obsession fearing terrorism and exacting revenge against “terrorists,” a term with a very broad meaning.
Obama also drew a line in the sand on Iran and its drive to build nuclear weapons. He had to. It’s one of his only real successes in the Middle East, if you include Iran as being a part of that region.
Obama’s administration has seen several major failures in foreign policy. He failed to reach an agreement with Afghanistan on troop deployments, and there is no solution to the continuing civil war in Syria. In fact, Syria’s dictator Bashar Al-Assad has taken control of the debate through masterful and strategic public relations spin, better than any other Arab leader or nation. Assad has managed to tone down expectations that he will be defeated, something many predicted when the revolution there began in 2011.
Obama did speak about progress curtailing Iran’s nuclear capabilities. And despite the failure to achieve results, Palestinian and Israeli leaders are not just calling each other names. They’re also still negotiating. Maybe that’s why Obama spoke about it more this time than ever before.
Here are some things to consider that might calm concerns that Obama is being tied up with domestic issues at the expense of his concern for the Middle East, made at length during his 2009 “Cairo Speech.”
In his six State of the Union speeches, Obama used the words “Middle East” one time in 2012, and twice in 2013. He never used the term in his prior State of the Union Speeches. Although it was missing from his most recent speech, he made up for that in other areas. Obama mentioned “Israel” once in 2009, once in 2012, once in 2013, and twice in this last speech.
When it comes to Palestinians, keep in mind Obama is speaking to a joint session of the US Congress, which is notoriously anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian and anti-peace. But Obama said the word “Palestinians” twice for the first-time ever during a State of the Union Speech. It was not uttered in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 or 2013. He didn’t mention the word “Arabs” in this speech. Instead, in 2010, 2011 and 2013 he said “Arabian Peninsula.”
Should we as Arabs worry? I don’t think so. If anything, he increased our presence in a speech where even a few words are significant and the focus is America.
But when Obama did say the word “Palestinians” this time, I thought I saw him wink. Can’t be too careful when the powerful Israeli lobby is breathing down his neck and the weak, non-existent Arab lobby is, well, non-existent.
Categories: Middle East Topics