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New York Review of Books: Obama's Middle East: Rhetoric and Reality

May 22, 2011


In this blog post for the New York Review of Books, David Bromwich, Sterling Professor of English at Yale, criticises Obama for too often giving the impression, through his rhetoric, that the United States plays the role of parent when dealing with the Middle East.

Being president of the world has sometimes seemed a job more agreeable to Barack Obama than being president of the United States. The Cairo speech of June 2009 was his first performance in that role, and he said many things surprising to hear from an American leader—among them, the statement that “it is time for [Israeli] settlements to stop.” But as is now widely understood, the aftermath of Cairo was not properly planned for. Though Obama had called on Benjamin Netanyahu to halt the expansion of settlements, he never backed his demand with a specific sanction or the threat of a loss of favor. His contact with peaceful dissidents in the Arab world remained invisible and was clearly not a major concern of his foreign policy. Soon after the Cairo speech, the Afghan war and drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal regions took center stage.

Yet Obama has always preferred the symbolic authority of the grand utterance to the actual authority of a directed policy—a policy fought for in particulars, carefully sustained, and traceable to his own intentions. The command to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and the attempt to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike, which closely followed the bin Laden success, are the exceptions that prove the rule: actions of a moment, decided and triggered by the president alone. His new Middle East speech, at the State Department on May 19, was in this sense a return to a favorite genre.

Before an international audience, Obama tends to speak as if he were the United States addressing the world; and he treats the United States as the most grown-up country in the world. This posture carries a risk of parental finger-wagging, which our president—still young as a parent and young as a leader—doesn't sufficiently guard against. A misjudged tone was audible, for example, in his speech to the joint session of the Indian Parliament on November 8, 2010, where he boasted of his support for India's nomination to the Security Council, but warned: “Let me suggest that with increased power comes increased responsibility.” So too, at the state department on Thursday, he chided Arab countries for acting immaturely and blaming the West as “the source of all ills, a half century after the end of colonialism.”

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