SOON after he came to office in 2009, US President Barack Obama made a trip to Cairo and gave a stirring speech at Cairo University. Obama is probably the best speaker in world politics and can soar to heights of great rhetoric; the effect of his Cairo speech was probably magnified by the fact that he was a few months into his four-year term and hopes were high that he would live up to the promises he had made while campaigning for the presidency.
A little less than two years later, with a great deal of cynicism over what Obama has turned out to be, he gave a second address today, focused on the Middle East, this time from the White House. And in so doing, he may well have ensured that he loses the presidential election in 2012.
The speech was apparently meant to give an official American stance on the incidents that have taken place in the Middle East since last December – the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and the ongoing struggle for freedom in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and smaller agitations in other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
The killing of Osama bin Laden would have guaranteed Obama re-election had he not opened his big mouth about Israel’s borders. But he chose to do precisely this and, in so doing, may well have lost the backing of the powerful Israeli lobby that can decide who rises or falls in American politics.
George Bush Senior was the last US president to feel the power of this lobby after he withheld loan guarantees from Israel in order to force the country to attend peace talks in Madrid in 1991; he lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton.
Obama’s mistake was to backtrack on US policy; it is well-known that the US backs a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians based on the ceasefire lines of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. This stance ensures that Israel retains control of the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip which it can then use as bargaining chips. Jerusalem is the main obstacle. (The so-called peace process over the last 20 years has given the Gaza Strip and about 20 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian control.)
But in his speech today, Obama said a two-state settlement between Israel and the Palestinians would be based on the borders that existed before the 1967 war. At that time, Jordan was occupying the West Bank and Egypt held the Gaza Strip. And Israel was not in control of Jerusalem.
Obama has a chance to fall on his knees and grovel and reverse his stance – he is due to speak to the biggest and most powerful Israeli lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, soon. But if he does repeat his comments there, then you can bid goodbye to the chances of a Democrat being in the White House for the next four years.
Predictably, Obama came down in support of Arab countries where the people have decided to fight for freedom. But his gestures to help these nations – involving the IMF and the World Bank – means that the process that was gone through in South America to make the nations of that continent servants of the US will be re-enacted all over again.
As expected, Obama did not dare to say a word about Saudi Arabia. There have been several low-key protests in the kingdom and women have threatened to drive en masse in protest against the ludicrous rule that prevents them from doing so. But Obama seemed unaware of this.
He mentioned the repression in Bahrain and even went to the extent of saying that Shia mosques should not be destroyed by the Sunni rulers but he did not chide Saudi Arabia for leading troops into Bahrain and playing a leading role in savagely quelling the popular protests.
The US treads carefully when it comes to Saudi Arabia. There is no better example to illustrate this than the events of 9/11; despite the fact that 15 of the 19 terrorists who attacked the US were Saudis, Washington did nothing to protest. Instead, it helped several members of the bin Laden family and royals from the Saudi clan to leave the US immediately after the attacks, at a time when air traffic was grounded.
The name of the game is oil. The Saudis are still the biggest producers and the country with the largest remaining reserves. If explorations in Iraq do turn up more reserves as some have predicted, then a future US president may criticise Saudi Arabia in public.
For the moment, Obama is as beholden to the Saudis as Dubya. He is conscious that the US still consumes 25 percent of the world’s petroleum and is up to its tits in debt.