Obama’s big speech on the Middle East yesterday was essentially catch-up. He set out his stall 2 years ago in his big speech in Cairo calling for a new relationship with the Muslim Arab world and an end to further encroachment of Israeli settlements in Palestine. There was no obvious breakthrough in the Arab relationship on the ground and Israeli settlement-building continued apace. No financial, diplomatic, economic levers available in US hands were used to shift either dimension because the status quo fundamentally favoured American interests. Then something did happen because the simmering tension of poverty, high unemployment, corruption and repression finally broke surface. The US Administration dithered and disagreed because its trumpeted support for human rights and self-determination challenged its core interests in the region, Israel and oil. Now the Arab Spring is in spate, the US, having initially opposed it and then lukewarmly kept its distance from it, is having to set its imperial seal on the developments. It doesn’t work.
As everyone observes, the speech was highly selective. If US and Western military intervention is justified against Libya because it is brutally suppressing a people’s uprising, it’s equally justified against Syria for the same reason. The difference however from the point of view of the US is that Libya has oil, while the toppling of Assad in Syria could pave the way for an Islamist regime even more threatening to Israel.
The hypocrisy is even more blatant in the case of Bahrain where there has been not even a peep of US disapproval at the intervention by a 1,000 Saudi troops to help suppress an unarmed popular rebellion. The reason of course is that Bahrain is home to the US fifth fleet. But what sticks in the craw most is that in a speech about human rights and democracy in the Middle East there was not a single word about Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive regimes in the region. Saudi is the great unmentionable because it is the safety valve for US control of the global oil industry.
If the US (and UK and EU) is to be taken seriously as a champion of democracy and freedom in the Middle East, then this self-interested policy of pick-and-choose has to be replaced by unqualified support for popular uprisings and a genuine even-handedness between Israel and the Arab world. It is not forgotten that the West starts from an unashamedly colonial record in the Middle East, from the US-UK suppression of the Mossadeq democratic regime in Iran in 1953 which nationalised the oil companies to the US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 which, despite the camouflage of WMD and Saddam’s genocidal repression, was unequivocally aimed at securing Western strategic control over the key global oil supplies.
Until Western policyfundamentally changes towards the Middle East, and particularly Palestine and recognition of Hamas as a negotiating partner with a duly elected democratic base, no amount of US rhetoric will be worth more than a bucket of warm spit.