In keeping with their general philosophy of giving no quarter to President Barack Obama, conservatives spent much of last week lambasting Obama's visit to the Middle East as an "apology tour." Over the weekend, this talking point made its way into the mainstream media's conventional wisdom. CNN's Politicker blog reported that "as the world continues to digest and dissect President Obama's historic speech directed at the Muslim world, a senior aide to the president is pushing back on the suggestion that Obama's latest overseas trip amounted to an apology tour." ABC's George Stephanopoulos played along too, saying "we've heard some say that this was an apology tour."
Obama is nothing if not excellent at delivering speeches—but America didn't get into its current jam in that region from a lack of good speeches.
Back in the real world, to have an apology tour you need some apologies, and speaking in Cairo Obama didn't make any. He was as unapologetic about his determination to fight al Qaeda as he was about his determination to recommit the United States to the international prohibition on torture. Indeed, contrary to the hysteria of the complaints, the real problem with Obama's speech was that, in critical respects, it was shockingly banal, and missed the opportunity to genuinely reconfigure America's approach to the region. As a PR gesture, the speech was good enough—Obama is nothing if not excellent at delivering speeches—but America didn't get into its current jam in that region from a lack of good speeches. Instead, the problem is one of policy. This is part of the reason America's approval rating lags behind Obama's personal popularity in so many Arab countries. And on the core issue of America's relationship with Arab states, Obama said nothing to untangle the core of our dysfunctional approach: We support unpopular autocratic regimes because we fear public opinion that's hostile to the United States; in turn, Arab public opinion is against us because we support unpopular autocratic regimes.
Indeed, in the democracy portion of his speech, Obama sounded a lot like his predecessor. In Cairo, Obama warned that "elections alone do not make a true democracy" in the absence of sound institutions. "Elections are important," said George W. Bush speaking in the United Arab Emirates on January 13, 2008, "but they're only a start." Like Obama, Bush emphasized the need for institutions. Bush observed that in Asia there are "many democracies that reflect the full diversity of the region" while Obama said that "each nation gives life" to the principle of democracy "in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people." Obama argued that "Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful, and secure"; Bush spoke of "the lasting stability that only freedom can bring."
That Bush and Obama agree on these points doesn't show that Obama is wrong. Rather, it shows that even though this material is accurate, it doesn't add up to a policy that amounts to anything. The fact of the matter is that there's a very limited amount the United States can do to coerce foreign countries into holding free and fair elections, much less building a full suite of liberal institutions.
What we can do is change the way we relate to the existing governments. Currently, whether we're officially on record as favoring democracy or not, we're still deeply in bed with status quo regimes. Our global network of military bases includes installations in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Iraq and our warships operate constantly in the region's coastal waters. After Cairo, Obama went to Germany where America also has military bases. But unlike the German bases, the Middle Eastern ones are deeply unpopular and seen as a legacy of colonialism. When the president of the United States stands besides a German chancellor, a French president, or a British or Canadian prime minister, it is seen as a meeting of equals; in the Middle East, it's more like a visit from the imperial center to the provinces.
Whether we’re officially on record as favoring democracy or not, we’re still deeply in bed with status quo regimes.
And while we shouldn't be naïve enough to think that Osama bin Laden would just pack up and live a quiet life in the absence of the heavy American military presence in the region, it can't be denied that they're frequently cited as a rallying cry and recruiting tool. What's more, it's their presence that undergirds the broader logic of al Qaeda's view that Muslims must attack the "far enemy"—the United States—in order to express their grievances with local governments. The invasion of Iraq, needless to say, did a great deal to intensify Arab fear that the United States is seeking the imperial subjugation of their lands (and oil). And Obama's disavowal of the invasion helps in this regard, but there continues to be speculation about "residual forces" remaining in Iraq even after Obama's promised withdrawal of "combat forces."
More tellingly, the bulk of our bases in the region were first established in the wake of the first Gulf War in order to "contain" the threat from Saddam Hussein. Today, Saddam is gone. But the bases aren't. On the merits, there's no need for them. The balance of power in the Persian Gulf is of some interest to the United States, but forces kept "over the horizon" could move into place if for some reason they were needed. Meanwhile, as long as the bases exist, they continue to serve as visible reminders of the ties between the U.S. and Arab autocracies—reminders that speak more powerfully than any speech can.
Reversing the policy trajectory of the past 20 years would, of course, take time and nobody can or should blame Obama for not having turned everything around in a few months. But a speech is a time to outline a vision for the future. A plan for substantive changes in policy. What we got instead were fine words expressing complicated ideas on deep subjects. For a visit to Buchenwald or the Normandy beaches, that's fine—nobody expects a dramatic revision of American policy toward Western Europe. But in Cairo, there was a chance to say something truly "historic" about the future of American policy. Instead, Obama will be coming back to America with everything essentially the way he left it.
Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.