When President Obama takes to the podium Thursday to deliver his vision of the Middle East, he will need all the magic of his oratory. In his two years in office, his message to allies and enemies in the world's most contentious region has been confusing, at best. His administration has angered both Israelis and Palestinians without any sign of progress. He has often appeared to be scrambling to keep up with the "Arab Spring" — the outbreak of democratic yearning that has toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt, led to a standoff in Libya and triggered harsh crackdowns in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.
Israelis and Arabs alike are asking America, "Aren't we your friend?" Caught in the fallout from the Arab Spring, Obama will walk a fine line in his address and at a meeting Friday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the president continues his attempts to mollify all sides.
The love following his Cairo address two years ago is waning. His speech comes at a time when his popularity among Arabs has dropped, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. In addition to the stability of a region, American principles are also at stake.
The people presently hitting the streets in the Arab Spring have read our Declaration of Independence, where it says, " … it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them to another … " and when the people are " … under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government … " And they loved it.
They are quite familiar with much of American history and are emulating it as they shed their blood and lives for freedom and democracy in "the pursuit of happiness." As they wrap themselves in American principles, symbols and examples while storming the barriers, they look around and find a missing friend: America.
Why? Because we have placed ourselves not on the side of angels but squarely with the dictators and despots now desperately defending those ramparts. Our desire — our necessity — for oil and stability long ago put us in the camp with those who give the orders to shoot-to-kill unarmed civilians in Yemen, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates, and with their enablers in Saudi Arabia, and by extension, Washington.
Then there are the uprisings in Syria; in yet-to-be-touched-directly, but inevitably, Algeria and Morocco; and now, as of the past weekend, at Israel's borders, an uprising that left 12 Arabs dead — an obvious addition to Friday's agenda for Obama's meeting with Netanyahu. And surely democracy beckons the peoples in the vast African lands that border the southern Sahara rim to the far south of the continent. Sooner or later? Inevitably.
The Arab rebellion began with the toppling of governments in Tunisia and Egypt and quickly spread. However, serious unrest remains in both of those nations as military authorities and civilians continue to clash over future directions, a possible omen for the rest of the Arab Spring. In Libya, there appears to be a stalemate at the moment between the regime of Muammar Qaddafi and forces trying to oust him. A bloody crackdown also appears to have resulted in a stalemate in Yemen, while Bahrain brutally put down a citizen uprising, with military assistance from Saudi Arabia.
Ominously, the Saudis have hardened their position against the United States, as articulated by Islamic scholar Nawaf Obaid in an op-ed article in Monday's Washington Post. Meanwhile, the Syrian government continues to use deadly force against protesting unarmed civilians.
That the rebellions caught American officials and our Arab allies by surprise prompts the questions why and how? Historically, successive American administrations and Congresses had a single concern in the region: guaranteeing the continued flow of cheap oil vital to our economy. Of lesser concern was the kind of people running these oil-producing states. Our best friends ranged from bad monarchs to worse despots who oppressed and repressed their populations with deadly force when necessary. It was obvious to anyone who spent any quality time in the area that something had to give. I even spotted it in the 1980s as a New York Times reporter in the region.
Simply put, we befriended the regimes and plied them with TLC and bushels of dollars for their militaries, militias and security forces to support our interests, against the interests and suffering of their people. In the process, we also ignored our own democratic principles.
For decades, journalists covered increasingly restive Arab populations. As a reporter, I relished conversations with youthful Moroccans, Tunisians and Algerians (as well as older professionals, writers and professors), some of whom had served jail time and showed me the scars — people who expressed admiration for American music, films, celebrities and people but who detested our policies.
The television newsman Ted Koppel, in a short piece in the Washington Post, has suggested getting rid of the word "democracy," declaring that, "The concept remains worthy, but the word is rapidly being exhausted of all residual value" as applied to the Middle East. "Truth be told, our government's commitment to democracy in other countries is almost whimsically inconsistent: clearly greater in Libya than in Saudi Arabia, less in Bahrain than in Iran," he wrote. "We are constrained from actively promoting democracy in China by our enormous national interests there; but in Congo, where our national interests are negligible and the outrages against democracy are constant, we do nothing. The misappropriation of the word is so great as to be silly."
On the other hand, Henry Kissinger, the ultimate practitioner of über-realpolitik, makes the case for pragmatism in his new book, On China. He urges " … the idealist to recognize that principles need to be implemented over time and hence must be occasionally adjusted to circumstance … "
Besides being concerned that American policies do not live up to our professed principles, we should also wonder how our vast and expensive intelligence community missed the impending Arab Spring. OK, they're the same folks who were caught off guard by the downfall of the Soviet Union and who took 10 years to locate Osama bin Laden, not in a cave but in Pakistan, living rather lavishly by local standards — heck, even by our standards, albeit more Comfort Inn than Park Hyatt.
Where the Arab Spring takes us, nobody knows. Our friends and our principles are in the balance. Add to that uncertainty the serious issues confronting Americans: We're an empire in decline, our politics and economy are embattled, social problems seem unsolvable, culture clashes are rampant and worsening, and our people are confused and angry about it all. When President Obama opens his mouth to speak, one of his tasks will be to bring those principles and our national interests closer together.
Paul Delaney is a veteran reporter and a former editor at the New York Times. He is one of the founders of the National Association of Black Journalists.