US president’s speech will please very few

From the Middle East, Obama's speech sounded disappointing: out of touch with allies, too gentle on foes

Big policy speeches, such as the one Barack Obama delivered at West Point on Wednesday, are often directed at multiple audiences. As such, they can sometimes be spread too thin, seeking to please too many listeners and ending up satisfying none. That is what appears to have happened, given the largely indifferent reaction to Mr Obama’s speech – even from among his audience of cadets.

In this region, disappointment with Mr Obama comes as a result of what he said and what he didn’t say. Start with the only tangible announcement, of a counterterrorism “partnership fund” of $5 billion (Dh18bn). This is welcome, especially for the government in Yemen, which is struggling to contain the Al Qaeda elements in the south. But the disappointment is that this money is likely to be used to continue with the drone strikes – which kill civilians, fuel extremism and, therefore, threaten the rest of the Peninsula. A failed policy does not need further funds.

On the other hand, Mr Obama did not say what was needed on Iran and Syria. On Iran, he talked of continuing to seek an agreement. But it is well known that the Arab Gulf countries fear the US is seeking an agreement with Iran “on the cheap”. The suspicion is that, as the one tangible foreign policy success on the horizon, Mr Obama will seek a deal at any cost, even over the needs of America’s long-term allies.

Lastly, and most importantly for the Middle East, he did not say enough on Syria. Mr Obama framed his “announcement” that he would aid Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq with the strain of refugees as something new. But this is the minimum required. Suggestions that the US would – finally – start to train the rebels did not materialise in the speech, and the president limply said he would push for a “political” resolution to the crisis – even though that has been tried and failed.

Mr Obama suggested he had kept US troops off the ground in Syria. That is true. But that was not what regional countries were calling for. There are a whole series of options – no fly zones, surgical strikes, safe havens – that could have been used. Mr Obama chose to implement none of them.

Certainly, Mr Obama was never going to satisfy all his friends and rebutt all his critics. But by promising big policies and delivering none he has merely contributed to the continuing sense in this region and elsewhere that the Obama administration is too disengaged, too remote and not willing to take the tough choices necessary to lead.

Published: May 29, 2014 04:00 AM

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