Can we now, after the president’s Thursday Mideast speech, finally stop calling Barack Obama a “ realist?” Please. Ever since he emerged on the national stage more than three years ago, commentators have been claiming that Obama—unlike George W. Bush—places national interest, not human freedom, at the heart of his foreign policy. That narrative began with a wild misreading of Bush, the president who deepened America’s ties to a bevy of oil-rich tyrannies, especially in Africa; bear-hugged Pakistan’s military ruler Pervez Musharraf; conducted business as usual with China; encouraged Fatah strongmen to try to militarily topple the Hamas government Palestinians elected in 2006; welched on U.S. commitments to build a functioning democracy in Afghanistan and, oh yes, oversaw the torture of terror suspects on at least three continents.
Obama, by contrast, was a “realist” because he opposed invading countries and toppling their governments in order to install democracy. But by that standard, all American presidents are realists, since rarely has America ever toppled governments to install democracy. Democracy has at times been the byproduct of our wars, but their rationale has almost always been security, including in Iraq, where freedom was an afterthought in Bush’s biggest pre-war speeches until it turned out Iraq contained no WMD. (Even America’s recent humanitarian interventions—Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya—have aimed at saving lives, not installing democracy).
The real difference between Obama and Bush is that Obama actually is what Bush said he was: a moral universalist. Bush’s universalism was mostly a mask for his Manichaeism. For him, a country’s human-rights record was largely a function of its acquiescence to American power. Thus, oppressive anti-American regimes and movements like Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas were rightly denounced. But when governments lined up on America’s side in the “war on terror”—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt—they suddenly became “moderates,” as if that was a moral category rather than geopolitical one. This conflation of geopolitical categories with moral ones has a long history on the American right: think of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous claim that America’s anticommunist friends were merely “authoritarian” and therefore morally superior to the Soviet Union’s, which were “totalitarian.” But it reached its apex in the Bush administration, which deemed Israel—because it is America’s democratic ally—virtually incapable of violating human rights, even in the West Bank, where it is not a democracy. The more strongly a country backed America’s wars, the less Bush’s freedom talk applied to it, which helps explain why, when it came to the United States itself, Bush acted as if violating human rights was something America did not—indeed, could not—do.
The striking, inspiring thing about the revolutions in the Middle East is their genuine universalism. For the most part, the protesters don’t seem to care whether the governments oppressing them are theocratic, secular, or monarchical, pro-American, anti-American, or somewhere in between. They want them out. That’s part of why the American right—which still habitually conflates universal morality and American power—has found the demonstrations so befuddling. They want Obama to embrace nonviolent antigovernment protest in Iran and Syria, because those regimes are hostile to the U.S., but not necessarily in Egypt and Bahrain, and certainly not in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—even though these movements are all part of an organic whole.
Obama draws distinctions too, of course. He didn’t nudge Saudi Arabia toward reform in his speech (although he didn’t use the specter of Iranian power as an excuse for Saudi tyranny either). Still, by jettisoning Bush’s “us versus them” framework—by not pretending that the line dividing Middle Eastern freedom and Middle Eastern tyranny is coterminous with the line dividing America’s friends and enemies—he put America genuinely on democracy’s side. He demanded change not only in Iran and Syria, but in U.S. allies like Yemen and Bahrain as well, and in so doing differentiated himself from the thugs in Tehran, who in a reflection of their own “us versus them” hypocrisy, demand freedom in Sana while abetting wholesale slaughter in Damascus.
When it came to a Palestinian state, Obama put more distance between himself and Netanyahu than he has since he lost the settlements fight.
By embracing all—rather than only some—of the Arab spring, Obama also powerfully distanced himself from Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who supports Arab democracy so long as it never impairs his ability to forestall Palestinian democracy. Obama spoke strongly about Israeli security, and he has backed up those words by helping Israel build its potentially revolutionary antimissile defense system, Iron Dome. But when it came to a Palestinian state, he put more distance between himself and Netanyahu than he has since he lost the settlements fight. First of all, he called for a “contiguous” Palestinian state, something Netanyahu has never endorsed—a principle that if taken seriously would require Israel to dismantle not merely small, remote settlements, but large ones like Ariel, which Netanyahu has called “the heart of our country.” He said there could be no permanent Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, something Netanyahu demanded as recently as this week. And although he said “Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer” to Israeli anxieties about negotiating with Hamas given its refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist, he didn’t repeat the Quartet (read: Bush administration’s) demand that Hamas accept all past peace agreements as a precursor to any negotiations. In other words, he didn’t say the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation makes peace impossible, as Netanyahu will likely do when he addresses AIPAC next week. That’s particularly important given the overall thrust of Obama’s speech, because reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is the only path back to free elections throughout the Palestinian territories. Which is to say: Obama put himself on the side of Palestinian democracy, too.
All this may not matter as much as we’d like. American power has declined in the Middle East, in part because of the financial crisis, in part because other powers have gained strength, in part because we are militarily bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, in part because we have not stopped Iran’s nuclear program and in part because Obama could never bend Netanyahu to his will. Even the Palestinians—long the weakest player in the region—seem to be pursuing a strategy based on a post-American world. People in the Middle East don’t listen to American speeches like they once did.
Still Obama allied America with those Arabs and Iranians thirsting for freedom, and he did so in a subtle but remarkable way. He invoked, as he so often does, the civil-rights movement. Not World War II, where American power served the cause of freedom. Not the Cold War, where American power did as well, at least in Europe. But the civil-rights movement: where an oppressed people struggling for freedom confronted American power, and won. It’s a more subversive analogy than we generally acknowledge, and one that should make everyone battling oppression in the Middle East—in Sana, Damascus, Cairo, Tehran, and Ramallah, too—smile.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His latest book is The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris . Follow him on Twitter and Facebook .