David Bromwich on Obama

Last post on Obama's speech last week on the Middle East, I promise. I followed the speech on Twitter, then read it, and was invited soon after to comment on it by the BBC (I happened to be in London, next to their studio at the time.) I had also written a column previewing the speech as I disappointment (it wasn't exactly clairvoyance). But then work, traveling and seeing friends took my attention and I spent no further time on it. This piece by David Bromwich is a careful and thoughtful look at Obama's speech, which picks up on many things that struck me but then quickly faded as I read it:

In many of his public comments on the Arab Spring, during February, March, and April, Obama wielded a peculiar grammar of imperative commandment whose precise authority was unclear. He worked himself into a corner—-and appeared to render inevitable a military intervention—-when he said several times that “Qaddafi must go.” Of course, he had said something akin to that, more gently and vaguely, when he spoke about the “transition” Hosni Mubarak was expected to lead in Egypt, which “must be peaceful” and “must begin now.” He may have believed that the simplicity of his command was a cause of Mubarak’s eventual abdication.

A similar grammatical mood was summoned in his speech of May 19, in reference to Bashar al-Assad and the imperative of beginning a transition from despotism in Syria: “President Assad now has a choice. He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.” In short: either Assad must go, or his understanding of his office must go. Anyway President Assad was named with the respectful formality common in the discourse of leader to leader—unlike the truncated “Qaddafi” and “Saddam” by which successive presidents have now indicated their contempt for former allies whom they intend to strip of dignity and power. The language Obama reserved for Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen—an ally in the “war on terror”—was more accommodating, in a way. Here the president slipped into the “needs-to” construction favored in the unsigned editorials of metropolitan newspapers, a mood adapted to the situation of a well-informed outsider giving a sympathetic nudge. “President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power.”

So much for the commandments. It must be said that they emanate from a special understanding of the uniqueness of America’s example. Nonviolent protest and peaceful reform, President Obama seemed to say, are the only means he can support, and constitutional democracy is the only political end he can approve of. That is setting the standard high. Yet he illustrated his position on May 19 by three American examples: the rebellion against the British Empire, the Civil War to abolish slavery, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Two of these three movements to widen American democracy were violent. The point is worth making only because the contradiction—-which seems to have passed into his thinking undetected—will have been instantly obvious to his Arab listeners. As much as any American leader, Obama is held captive by a picture of America and America’s history as the touchstone of generous and fair-minded international conduct.

As they say, you really have to read the whole thing.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.