Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 19, 2011

The President’s speech: Will it play in Peoria (should it try to)?

Filed under: Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 19, 2011

President Obama speaking at Cairo University, June 7, 2009.

Later today — at about 11:00 Eastern Time — the President will give a speech at the State Department. Last Friday Jay Carney, the Press Secretary, explained its purpose as, “We’ve gone through a remarkable period in the first several months of this year in that region, in the Middle East and North Africa, and the President obviously has I think some important things to say about how he views the upheaval and how he has approached the U.S. response to the events in the region.” (Additional White House framing is available.)

Tuesday the King of Jordon was at the White House.  After the meeting, the President remarked, “We also discussed the situation with respect to Israel and the Palestinian conflict.  And we both share the view that despite the many changes, or perhaps because of the many changes that are taking place in the region, it’s more vital than ever that both Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table and begin negotiating a process whereby they can create two states that are living side by side in peace and security.”

The recent reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah, aimed at a unity government for Palestine, has been rejected by the Israeli government.  Prime Minister Netanyahu insists Israel cannot negotiate with Hamas, which rejects Israel’s right to exist and threatens violence.  But in a Monday speech to the Knesset, the Prime Minister also seemed to suggest new flexibility on key border issues.

Friday Mr. Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Mr. Obama at the White House.

It is all very operatic.  The well-known characters take their usual places, sing their usual lines, and the performance unfolds with a portentous – and entirely predictable — drama.   The President’s speech is awaited with the same anticipation of Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma: Surely it will be a great performance… of something we have all heard before.

Except… except the Arab people have been busy writing their own new opera.  The music is certainly different, the lyrics are not finished, and the plot is, well, rather complicated.

Here’s how the Lebanese journalist Rami Khouri recently described what is emerging:

Three fascinating circles of political players have emerged that deserve tracking: the Arab countries, the non-Arab neighbors, and major foreign powers. Among all three, there is plenty of bafflement, a sure sign that something important is going on that is refreshingly being driven and defined by Arab popular will rather than by local or foreign thugs.

The pattern of regime response is now clear, and comprises three categories. A few regimes like Tunisia and Egypt will tumble and give way to constitutional pluralistic democracies with varying degrees of armed forces participation, mimicking the situation in Turkey a decade ago. Others (Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya) will fight back with arrests, shootings and pro-regime street demonstrations. Some of these regimes will collapse soon and be replaced by more democratic systems (Libya and Yemen); others (Syria and Bahrain) will probably remain in power, but with considerably more stress within their systems, making it likely that domestic protests and serious political challenges will recur in the near future. The third group (Jordan, Oman, Morocco, Algeria, Saudi Arabia) faces varying degrees of less ominous domestic challenges, to which the countries will respond by negotiating constitutional changes that bring about limited reforms.

Changes within Arab countries will redraw the map of regional relationships and power politics. The most intriguing and important countries in this respect are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Iran; and, a fascinating aspect of this is how the three powerful non-Arab states of Israel, Turkey and Iran are simultaneously disoriented and almost flailing in their unimpressive attempts to come to terms with changing Arab realities.

In his speech this morning — timed more for Middle Eastern viewers than Midwesterners – the President is auditioning.  Does he have — does the US have — what it takes for a major role in the new opera being written?

Wednesday morning John Brennan called the President of Yemen encouraging him, “to sign and implement the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered agreement so that Yemen is able to move forward immediately with its political transition.” So far President Saleh is staying put. Wednesday afternoon the United States imposed sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and six of his government’s top officials. NATO operations in Libya continue. Perhaps even more important to the current context, yesterday global wheat prices closed 17 percent higher than just one week earlier.

Part of the challenge is finding an angle that will play reasonably well on Broadway (and in Peoria) while also finding fans in Cairo, Tel Aviv, Tunis, Riyadh, Rabat, and across the Arab arc.  Mr. Obama’s opening aria at Cairo University in June 2009 was well-received there, but reinforced a reputation among some Americans for being highfalutin.  Meanwhile the President’s starring role (and off-stage direction) in the Incident at Abbottabad prompted standing ovations in the United States, but barely a shrug among Mideast crowds entranced by the surprising (and treacherous) success of Arab Spring. (Including, it would seem, our antagonist at Abbottabad.)

For many (most?) Americans the Arab world is the source of expensive oil and dangerous terrorists.  For many (most?) Arabs the United States is a strong supporter of unwanted political “stability”, aka oppression, and source of insidious cultural values.  It is difficult to claim significant numbers of both audiences. But Mr. Obama has demonstrated a desire to do so and he has a strong track record as a crossover artist.

In opera Pavarotti was the most successful crossover star of his decidedly non-operatic generation. The Italian tenor’s explanation of his success may offer the President some pointers: It is a very honest world, our work. I think you cannot fake anything… Am I afraid of high notes? Of course I am afraid. What sane man is not?

Despite good cause to fear, he kept reaching for the high notes. At age 69 Pavarotti made his last Metropolitan appearance singing as Tosca’s lover Mario Cavaradossi. Puccini’s Tosca can be confusing. Featuring despotic corruption, torture, murder and suicide, it teases with a happy ending and then closes with melodramatic tragedy. It is precisely the plot we do not want to play out across North Africa and the Middle East.

Despite its unfortunate storyline Tosca is often acclaimed and regularly performed. The music transcends the story.

I want my President to hit and hold a very high C in his performance today. The United States cannot decide how the Arab Spring, or the Arab-Israeli conflict, or many other stories will play out. But we ought play our role honestly, reaching as high as we possibly can.

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6 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 19, 2011 @ 2:48 am

Well I think this is a terrific post and wish I could write and think as well as Phil. But given this blog does this reinforce my conclusion that for the moment [perhaps the rest of the decade and more] homeland security is largely a function of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic relationships as the three great Western religions, and has it in fact been that story for the last 1400 years of Western Civilization, plus perhaps technology, that has dominated World affairs? Because actually I don’t see it that way and because the rest of the world, outside the West and the seats of historic interest to the three religions, I actually believe the rest of the world looks on with shock and dismay at the constant threats raised by the apparent need of these religions for warfare, armageddon abnd apocolypse type beliefs, that threaten the rest of the world! In other words should the rest of the world worry about the internecine struggles in Western Civilization that clearly brought death and destruction in its wake even in Asia when those belief systems dominated, largely through technological prowress and warfare? How does the World not just Western Civilization organize itself for peaceful progress and development and increasing opportunity, education, freedom, individual liberty, civil rights, human rights etc etc in ways that can most ensure mankind’s continued survival and success?

I think an argument can be made that the WEST committed suicide in WWI, keeps trying to do it again with its various ideologies and religions and economic beliefs and the rest of the world has had enough of that largely failed approach reinforcing haves and have nots not just individually but in nation-states! So the Homeland Security crucial issue and issues and policies to me are not in the MENA [Middle East and N.Africa] but here at home where depression is the reality outside certain urbanized areas in the USA and no real long term strategy for success has yet become evident in the politicians or polity of the USA and therefore given vast technology and willingness to use it first rather than reason to maintain some kind of survival looks to me like Donny Rumsfeld was correct in using the term “dead-enders” but perhaps it is US that the term should be applied to? As I am about to be a Grandfather for the first time in late July I do wonder what part have I played still could play, or understand about creating a better world, or in fact has my life as lawyer, missile launch control officer, civil servant, blogger, contributed to the evident failure of many of the world’s systems to derive a “Peaceable Kingdom”?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 19, 2011 @ 5:22 am

Bill, The West has contributed more than its share of light and darkness. In this civilization’s pursuit of truth we too often decide our task is to exterminate perceived untruth.

Paradoxically, the West has also been a great integrator of ideas, religions, cultures, and peoples. The United States is the premier exemplar of these characteristics. The Dialectic: thesis, antithesis, synthesis can be seen as suicidal (especially when enmeshed in antithesis) or self-renewing.

The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions (antitheses) have been stunningly hopeful (may they be confirmed as such). The Libyan struggle has been heartbreaking. But it is Syria that I find most amazing: Friday after Friday thousands offer their own bodies as ransom for something other than the current oppression.

Many look back to the Treaty of Westphalia as fundamental to modern Western values and a potential model for resolving our current inter-religious strife. At the time Westphalia was a series of pragmatic, even cynical steps to staunch thirty years of horrific warfare. A very fragile synthesis succeeded a bloody antithesis.

What the President of the United States can — uniquely — do, and what this particular President may be uniquely skilled at doing, is to nudge the current antithetical struggles toward a more positive synthesis. We are no where close to a Peaceable Kingdom. Many in MENA perceive we are on the edge of spiraling violence, especially between Israel and the Palestinians.

What can the President say today and what can the United States do tomorrow and the next day to ease all of us toward self-renewal? I hope he will find the words. Writing in the Guardian Simon Tisdale has called the task Mission Impossible.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 19, 2011 @ 8:54 am

Great comment PHIL! It killed President Carter who did NOT use the term “malaise” but in fact what this President needs to do is lead the “reform thyself” movement. This does not mean vacations in Martha’s Vineyard but perhaps visiting the desolate empty towns of the plains, and depression ridden rural US as well as city ghettoes. Well the trappings of power are always seductive. May the leaders of the USA not be seduced.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 19, 2011 @ 11:41 am

I posted on the subject of public corruption of the elites in various nation-states as the key issue for the 21st Century. Posted to Wikipedia Peace of Westphalia mentioned by Phil. Personally I believe the TEA Party could gain traction in the USA by taking on the corrupt elites and Ron Paul might be the man to do it. Does not mean he would win of course. Elites tend to vote or prevent voting against themselves in various ways including corruption at the various state ballot boxes in the USA.

Question is whether in time remaining President Obama will be a “traitor to his class” like FDR and take on the corrupt elites in the USA? Doubtful IMO. FDR was a rare, extremely rare, commodity. His mother SARAH’s financing at key points his political career and the thorn in his side Eleanor (Sarah reputedly said she would never provide any political contribution again to FDR if he divorced Eleanor)made for an unusual combination of perspectives in FDR. Well the 2012 race yet to be run but as they say that is why they play the game!

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 20, 2011 @ 12:38 am

If the Middle East is part of HOMELAND SECURITY a cross-reference to Juan Cole’s blog INFORMED COMMENT should be added to the HS blog cross links. Or National Security!

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Solo gives way to duet; next the chorus

May 21, 2011 @ 7:31 am

[...] an early Thursday morning post I closed an extended opera analogy with, “I want my President to hit and hold a very high C [...]

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