President Barack Obama's recent speech on the Middle East is hailed by many as signalling new departures for the region. Even those those who read speeches carefully, or at least press accounts and commentaries on them, are encouraged by the tone and 'realism' in the words Obama used. They are encouraged by the 'moderate' language, the soothing tone, the reasonableness of it all. Here is a man struggling to redefine America's approach in line with its recent history in Iraq and recent uprisings across the Arab world. He's constrained, many eager and reluctant supporters argue, by entrenched forces so he can only do so much: the US foreign policy establishment, as Stephen Walt argues, is hard to shift and casts a permanent shadow over the White House. Two inherited wars from the Bush era continue to hamstring Obama. "Girl power" it is said - Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, Susan Rice - forced Obama's hand on Libya. The US military forced his hand over the 'surge' in Afghanistan. Israeli PM, Netanyahu, threatens the 'peace process' while Obama tries against entrenched interests to solve the problem.
The United States is now on the 'right side of history' in backing democratic forces in the Arab world, Obama suggests. It is on the side of the people against the vested interests, and is backing democratic change. Of course, it must uphold its 'vital interests' in defeating terrorism and maintaining the free flows of commerce and oil, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
Therein lies the elision of history in Obama's latest speech to restore America's image in the world: the war on terror has been waged largely in the Middle east and involved the active support of pro-US elites in torture and rendition and disappearances. Billions of dollars of US aid has poured into the coffers of the militaries of the region, many of which are using those weapons systems and equipment to put down uprisings across the region - in Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain, among others. Obama has hardly uttered a word on that oppression and even when he has the words are contradicted by the renewed aid packages to the military regime in Egypt, and the Saleh administration in Yemen.
In Egypt, the US supports a 'negotiated path to reform' under the auspices of the very regime that was headed by Hosni Mubarak. Even as Obama lauds democracy's stirrings in Egypt the military there are cracking down on strikes by underpaid workers suffering untrammeled neoliberal reforms forced by the US in a bid to keep open the flows of commerce.
On Israel Obama is said to lead the way to renewing the peace process: two states based on 1967 borders. Yet, in his speech, he pledged undying support for Israel, the only power with nuclear weapons in the region and which has violated UN resolutions for decades with American support. Israel continues to build illegal settlements on the West Bank; meanwhile Obama signed off Bush's $30 billion aid package to Israel and continues to sell weapons systems to Israel far superior to such aid and sales to US' Arab allies in the region - to maintain Israel's qualitative military edge. To the Palestinians he urged moderation and non-violence.
The 'Palestine Papers' published by The Guardian and other media a few months ago showed quite clearly the doube standards of the US and Israel in the peace process: the Palestine Authority offered practically everything Israel demanded. Like Israel, Obama refuses to recognise Hamas, despite its victory in democratic elections.
American policy towards a democratic Middle east remains wedded to its 'core interests'. Caught on the hop by the uprisings in the Arab world, Obama initially gave full backing to repressive regimes. Finding that the uprsings were serious and unlikely to fade away, he eventually backed change - but a negotiated change under the auspices of the very regimes that were the source of the problem so far as protestors were concerned. Such negotiated change is likely to produce 'low-intensity democracy' - regimes that have limited space for dissent because their own elites have a lot to lose, including massive American aid. But market reforms will proceed at full pelt.
No leader operates without constraints. Yet, it's clear that Obama chose after long deliberation to send in tens of thousands of additional US troops to Afghanistan. Contra Walt, Obama is part of the US foreign policy establishment - not its plaything or pawn.
The 'hesitation' that Obama exhibits before taking action is born of his own character and personality - a 'fence sitter' who deliberates excessively to look at the pros and cons of action, according to Britain's ambassador to the US. And the world situation today suits Obama's personality - it's complicated and changing. It requires an Obama rather than a Bush. In the end, however, American policy hardly seems to shift, despite Obama's continuous re-setting oratory.