Friday, May 20, 2011

Nothing new from Obama's #MEspeech?

Obama had promised to give an important speech on Middle East and North Africa on Thursday. He obviously enjoyed all the preceding anticipation and anxiety. Not only was the "international analyst" corps abuzz over the past week with curiosity, expectation and uncertainty about what the POTUS is going to say, but the President also made sure to be late giving the speech itself. This delay gave way to #whyobamaislate and #reasonsobamaislate hashtags on Twitter, painfully reminiscent of Mubarak's pre-speech tweet buzz. (My personal favorite explanations were "Obama is showing respect to our middle eastern tradition of being fashionably late" and "Because he can".)

Photo courtesy of Foreign Policy Magazine

Then, the #MEspeech was apparently a worldwide trending topic on Twitter, suggesting that there was a lot of international interest in what Obama had to say. In short, it was (almost) promised to be yet another "historic" public diplomacy speech.

Surprises were promised. Expectations were raised. Well... too bad. Because very little was said. Or, to be more precise, there was nothing new in what he said. Another disappointment?

I don't think I want to go into all the different reasons why the speech was bad, or why he could have made it better. There is already a lot of commentary and analysis out there, and I am sure much more is on its way. One prominent thing that cannot be left unmentioned, however, is that sometimes he did, indeed, sound like Bush. But now, let's get to public diplomacy...

In terms of content, here's a significant excerpt:

We must also build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future – particularly young people.  We will continue to make good on the commitments that I made in Cairo – to build networks of entrepreneurs and expand exchanges in education, to foster cooperation in science and technology, and combat disease. Across the region, we intend to provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned, and who speak uncomfortable truths.  And we will use the technology to connect with – and listen to – the voices of the people.
For the fact is, real reform does not come at the ballot box alone.  Through our efforts we must support those basic rights to speak your mind and access information.  We will support open access to the Internet, and the right of journalists to be heard – whether it’s a big news organization or a lone blogger.  In the 21st century, information is power, the truth cannot be hidden, and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens.
Such open discourse is important even if what is said does not square with our worldview.  Let me be clear, America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard, even if we disagree with them.  And sometimes we profoundly disagree with them. 

Great public diplomacy statement and a demonstration of the intent to connect directly with the people. And as already said, there doesn't seem to be anything new here. Just another reinforcement of the 2009 Cairo speech? I am not quite sure people in the region need speeches, though...

Lynch and Carvin with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, discussing questions submitted through Facebook and Twitter.

As the Q&A session moderated by Andy Carvin and Marc Lynch after the speech indicated, America's "image" problems still persist in the region, as the major questions that came up centered on mistrust and double-standards. (Though, one should note that this session itself provided a great opportunity for direct communication through social networking platforms. Great PD!)

It would, of course, be unfair not to recognize Obama's specific references to Yemen and Bahrain, and the need to end oppression. Yet, there was no single mention of Saudi Arabia, for example, which was another much-anticipated (and hoped-for) statement.

Quite obviously, the people have heard enough. Now they want to see and experience all that was being promised to them for decades. After all, the President himself acknowledged the changes that globalization has brought about and the importance of the "use of technology to increase transparency and hold government accountable". One thing he seems to forget is that this very technology is used to hold the U.S. accountable, too, only increasing the importance of public diplomacy of deed, beyond mere rhetoric.

Tahrir Square. Photo courtesy of Foreign Policy Magazine

Obama also effectively folded and put away the Palestinian-Israeli issue, in an obvious attempt to avoid dealing with it again, most probably having his next election season in mind. He said, in essence, it's up to them to come together and talk, and simply reinforced the stated American stance on the issue (including the two-state solution and the 1967 borders). Yet, Netanyahu is in town today and he will be meeting with the President, despite yesterday's announcement of 1,500 new settler homes in East Jerusalem. How can one not talk of double-standards and lack of commitment, then?

In short, the President did a good job - again - in giving an eloquent speech and attracting attention and press. However, the expectations were very high, while he delivered nothing significantly new. Great attempt, and yet he seems to have achieved very little. Perhaps if he didn't have all that preceding fanfare, he might have done better...? At least the disappointment would have been smaller.

After all, true public diplomacy is not what you say, but what you do. And more importantly, what the other sees that you do.

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