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.