President Obama finds his inner George W. Bush

President Obama finds his inner George W. Bush

President Obama delivered an excellent speech today. The outstanding question is whether his administration’s deeds will follow his eloquent words. Still, as overdue as it was, he at last placed the United States firmly on the side of freedom in the Middle East. Even as the "Arab Spring" has shown signs of faltering in recent weeks, President Obama’s remarks today have the potential to provide new support and momentum for the reformers of the region who are facing the challenges of disorderly transition in Egypt, setbacks in Bahrain, an impasse in Yemen, and sadistic violence in Syria.

Make no mistake about just how dramatic today’s speech is. In his remarks today, President Obama also found his "inner George W. Bush" — and effectively departed from the first 2 ½ years of his own administration’s foreign policy. Though not mentioned by name in the speech, the strategic logic of the Bush Doctrine loomed large. It was Bush who in a November 2003 address to the National Endowment for Democracy declared:

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe — because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo. Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results.

And today President Obama announced that "after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be … it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy."

Many of the specifics of President Obama’s speech today reveal a new direction as well. After weeks of relative silence and waffling on the situation in Syria, he explicitly denounced Assad’s crackdown and virtually called on the Syrian dictator to step down. After previous rhetorical outreaches to the "Islamic Republic of Iran" and silence during the June 2009 Green movement protests, today Obama denounced the "Iranian regime" for its hypocrisy and repression of its own people. After a posture of ambivalence and reluctance towards free trade initiatives, Obama today criticized "protectionism" and placed free trade as a centerpiece of new economic development initiatives for the region. After a policy of indifference towards international religious freedom, the president today forcefully identified religious freedom as a cornerstone of a new Middle Eastern political order, and specifically denounced the persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt.

Some things were still left unclear from today’s speech. First, how does this new, and laudable, support for freedom in the region square with America’s still acute security concerns, such as the Iranian nuclear weapons program? Second, why no mention of Saudi Arabia? Listening to Obama’s cautions to U.S. partners such as Yemen and Bahrain about the need to liberalize their political systems and respect the rights of dissidents, I waited in vain to hear Saudi Arabia included as well.

Still, in the main this stands as one of President Obama’s most significant and consequential speeches. The test will be how and to what extent his administration follows up these words in the months to come with concrete actions. Will he withdraw our ambassador from Damascus? Will he substantially increase the budget not just for economic aid but for democracy and human rights programs? How will his words today reshape the strategic priorities and assumptions of his administration?

Usually when a president uses language like "it will be the policy of the United States to …", a presidential doctrine follows. And in this case the Obama Doctrine sounds a lot like the Bush Doctrine.