- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
I know I’m supposed to get excited about the "major policy address" on Middle East policy that President Obama is going to deliver today, and you can be sure that plenty of people will be standing by to parse and spin every syllable. And then they’ll do the same thing to his speech at the AIPAC policy conference on Sunday, and will hover with equal intensity over Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress next week.
But I’m finding it hard to get motivated this time around, because I don’t think all this blather means anything. The advance word on Obama’s speech says he’s going to try to position the United States as a supporter of the "Arab spring" (except, of course, where it might be inconvenient), he’ll make the usual ritual condemnations of Iran, and he’ll offer up a modest package of economic support for Egypt (reportedly $2 billion worth of loan guarantees and debt restructuring which mostly just reallocates some existing funds).
Is your pulse racing with excitement? Didn’t think so. For starters, Egypt’s foreign debt is already more than $30 billion, so a bit of restructuring and increased loan guarantees (which just let Egypt borrow money at lower interest), isn’t exactly a "Marshall Plan for the Mideast." For Obama to condemn Iran isn’t exactly headline news either, and while it might make the Saudis happy to hear him say it, the bigger problem is that it does nothing to reduce Iran’s ability to exploit popular discontent with the situation in the region itself. And reports are that Obama’s team has ruled out saying anything interesting on the Israel-Palestine issue, which is hardly surprising given how badly they’ve bungled that part of their portfolio.
But the big problem is that nobody cares what U.S. presidents say anymore — and especially not Obama — because he hasn’t delivered. As surveys of popular opinion in the Arab world have repeatedly shown, what his audience in the Middle East wants is not more elegant phrases beautifully delivered — but actual policy change. Obama gave a wonderful speech in Cairo in June 2009 — which was well-received — but since then we’ve seen him backing down on Israel’s settlements, helping trash the Goldstone Report, vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution on the settlements, and adopting a decidedly inconsistent attitude towards the Arab spring (we like it in Egypt and Libya; not so much in Bahrain).
Words do matter, but only when they are backed up by appropriate action. Obama gave some pretty good speeches on our terrorism problem, for example, but it was the decision to redouble the search for bin Laden and then the bold choice to send a team after him in Pakistan that is the potential game-changer there. Without significant policy change, in short, the speeches we’re going to hear over the next week will just be a lot of eloquent irrelevance.