Anyone who has admired President Obama’s idealism all along should come away inspired by the high-mindedness of his "Arab spring" speech. It served to reassure his liberal base that he wasn’t solely continuing the Bush policy in the Middle East (i.e., kill every terrorist, ignore human rights, let Israel drift, keep the oil flowing). It put the conservative Israeli regime on notice, along with some minor allies like Yemen and Bahrain. Those were the points that might cause the powers that be to feel nervous for five minutes. The rest of the speech, a lofty high five for reform in the Middle East, was more problematic.
Obama referred to his 2009 Cairo speech that extended an olive branch to the Muslim world, reversing Bush’s belligerent "clash of civilizations" stance. Lofty as those declarations were two years ago, the intervening time has been one of inertia. Guantanamo remains a thorn in our side; Iraq continually totters; Afghanistan remains chaotic; Pakistan is a client state bought off with bribes basically because they have the atom bomb. In the face of such inertia, what can ideals do? If asked whether they would support freedom movements in Saudi Arabia, for example, in exchange for gasoline at $6 a gallon, the average American would jump ship on lofty ideals.
As in so many areas, such as health care, immigration, and energy policy, Obama combined visionary- in-chief with professor-in-chief. He’s good in those roles, but a global President needs a global nation to follow him. I’m not sure that we are really there yet. Reactionary politics held sway in the 2010 election; the economy teeters precariously; people feel like drawing in their horns. Even in good times it would be hard for any visionary to reverse the right-wing trends that have dominated American politics since the Reagan era. In other word, without an American spring, the Arab spring is still on its own. This country will keep supporting despots and royal families in the Middle East; we will demand the free flow of oil, which is the same as capitulating totally to the oil oligarchs that hold the world ransom; and we won’t stop being the world’s largest arms dealers.
It’s not idealism that is at fault here; it’s self-contradiction. You can’t be at peace and war simultaneously, reactionary and visionary, friendly to reform and despots. Obama needs to thread his way through these contradictions. Given his character, I believe that he’s trying. His idealism rings true. But countless idealists have broken their heads against hard realities. The best hope I can take away now is India, a place that is thriving even though the government is corrupt, bribes are a way of life, vast millions are illiterate, religious intolerance simmers beneath the surface, elites jealously guard their privilege, and gender inequality is shockingly rampant. Obama mentioned all those things in his speech, and it’s heartening to realize that the dispossessed people of the world, starting with so little, facing such heartbreaking obstacles, can still rise. The silent power of idealism may be able to accomplish more than hardened realists realize. Let’s hope so, especially at this uncertain moment.
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