Time for a Big Speech on the Middle East From President Obama

First Tunisia, then Egypt, now Yemen. Lebanon too. Apparently, Algeria is stocking up on wheat so as to stave off food price hikes that might lead to civil unrest.  As one twitter user wryly noted, “Wonder what Ghadaffi is thinking…not a great time to be a dictator in the Middle East.”

There’s somethin’ happenin’ here.  Now is the time for President Obama to do something bold.

It is fair to say that the United States does not have a great track record of supporting human rights and democratic governance in the Middle East.  The United States has too often traded stability–in the form of a strong man dictator–for democracy. In Egypt, this has manifested itself in billions of dollars of foreign aid since the late 1970s.  (Egypt is the third largest recipient of U.S. Foreign Aid, after Israel.)  In Yemen, a determination to secure Yemen’s military as an ally in the war on terror has resulted in a huge military assistance package for the government.  So dedicated is the United States to propping up Yemen’s military, President Obama was willing to waive a prohibition against sending U.S. military assistance to countries that use child soldiers.

The point is, American policy in the Middle East has tilted so strongly in favor of unpopular regimes that President Obama, today, risks falling on the wrong side of history. It would seem that some in the White House appear to acknowledge this.  The Washington Post is reporting that the administration is crafting a new assertive stance in which officials “will pursue a dual-track approach in the coming weeks, both speaking with civil activists in Egypt and meeting with officials to encourage reform in the bellwether Arab nation.”

That’s all well and good. But I think we need something a bit bolder.  The fragility of these regimes are staring to show. And if and when they topple, the United States will look even more complicit in the sins of the ancien regimes.

President Obama needs to step up big time.   He ought to deliver a speech that outlines a new American approach to the region. One that recognizes the missteps of the past, that firmly aligns the United States with the democratic impulses and human rights.  That means, first and foremost, a withdrawal of American support for various strongmen in the Middle East absent credible steps toward a more open societies.  Most importantly, it should acknowledge that that the United States cannot control what happens in the Middle East–and does not seek to do so, either.

We’ve known for a long time that supporting strongmen was ultimately unsustainable.  Eventually, the will of the people will override dictators.  The United States cannot control what happens. But the President can firmly put himself on the right side of history. It is high time that he uses one of his greatest strengths–his ability to deliver a stirring oration– to in support of a reconfigured American approach to the region.