The full (prepared) text of Obama's speech is available from the Washington Post. As of this writing, I haven't been able to find the printed text on the White House website.
The following strike me in particular from my initial hearing and reading of the speech.
Obama's rhetoric about a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine and respect for the 1967 borders sounds good. US policy for Israel-Palestine usually sounds good at a high level of abstraction. But unless the United States is willing to apply real pressure to Israel - that means reduction of aid - to withdraw from the occupied territories, it's all hot air. The Obama Administration has so far shown not the slightest inclination to reduce aid to Israel over the illegal settlements in the occupied territories.
There was the usual supply of high-minded words, delivered here in Obama's careful diction that he uses "for talking to well-meaning people who are very young or very old and certainly need remedial help" (David Bromwich).
Unfortunately, in too many countries, calls for change have been answered by violence. The most extreme example is Libya, where Moammar Gaddafi launched a war against his people, promising to hunt them down like rats. As I said when the United States joined an international coalition to intervene, we cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people, and we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to impose regime change by force – no matter how well-intended it may be.
But in Libya, we saw the prospect of imminent massacre, had a mandate for action, and heard the Libyan people’s call for help. Had we not acted along with our NATO allies and regional coalition partners, thousands would have been killed. The message would have been clear: keep power by killing as many people as it takes. Now, time is working against Gaddafi. He does not have control over his country. The opposition has organized a legitimate and credible Interim Council. And when Gaddafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power, decades of provocation will come to an end, and the transition to a democratic Libya can proceed.
While Libya has faced violence on the greatest scale, it is not the only place where leaders have turned to repression to remain in power. Most recently, the Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens. The United States has condemned these actions, and working with the international community we have stepped up our sanctions on the Syrian regime – including sanctions announced yesterday on President Assad and those around him. [my emphasis]
Pretty much no one in the US wants to say anything that sounds remotely good about the hated Muammar Qaddafi. But the propaganda claim Obama repeats here isn't strictly true: "Moammar Gaddafi launched a war against his people, promising to hunt them down like rats." This is based on a speech in which Qaddafi threatened to hunt down and kill active rebels. The official justification for the NATO intevention is that Qaddafi intended to commit a mass killing of his own ordinary citizens. Since we've intervened in Libya's civil war in which thousands of people are being killed and could very well continue for years, we'll never know whether the fears that allegedly motivated our intervention were justified. We do know the killing will go on for some time, with active American participation.
Those who think we aren't dropping enough freedom bombs on people in the Muslim world will find some encouragement in Obama's threat to Syria: "The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way." So what if Assad does neither? Is Obama prepared to go to war for regime change in Syria, too? Are the American people?
Obama surely warmed the hearts of the anti-Iran neocon war hawks by praising the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom. We Americans never seem to have problems praising the just aspirations for freedom by people in countries we want to invade, bomb or subvert. People in designated enemy countries like Iran no doubt find it difficult to be unambiguously welcoming of such words from the American President.
In Iran, a fully democratic regime could be expected to be more insistent than the current regime on pursuing a peaceful nuclear program. And possibly even nuclear weapons.
In Iran and in the Arab countries, more democratic regimes are likely to be more insistent on having their governments push for an end to Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
And through the moral force of non-violence, the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades.
With the US conducting wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, plus less sweeping acts of war in Yemen, Somalia and Iran, how seriously can the American President expect to be taken outside of the Beltway Village bubble when he praises "the moral force of non-violence"? See also Reuters, NATO says sinks eight Libyan warships 05/19/2011, which reports an applications of the moral (?) force of violence, more-or-less coinciding with Obama's speech. Maybe in Village-speak, NATO freedom bombs are non-violent violence.
At the risk of sounding like a grumpy foreign policy Realist - which I don't consider myself to be - we shouldn't kid ourselves as to how the following promises of peaceful assistance for reform sound to governments in the Middle East that don't consider the US an entirely friendly power:
So in the months ahead, America must use all our influence to encourage reform in the region. Even as we acknowledge that each country is different, we will need to speak honestly about the principles that we believe in, with friend and foe alike. Our message is simple: if you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States. We must also build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future – particularly young people.
We will continue to make good on the commitments that I made in Cairo – to build networks of entrepreneurs, and expand exchanges in education; to foster cooperation in science and technology, and combat disease. Across the region, we intend to provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned, and who speak uncomfortable truths. And we will use the technology to connect with – and listen to – the voices of the people.
In fact, real reform will not come at the ballot box alone. Through our efforts we must support those basic rights to speak your mind and access information. We will support open access to the Internet, and the right of journalists to be heard – whether it’s a big news organization or a blogger. In the 21st century, information is power; the truth cannot be hidden; and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens.
Such open discourse is important even if what is said does not square with our worldview. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard, even if we disagree with them. We look forward to working with all who embrace genuine and inclusive democracy. What we will oppose is an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others, and to hold power through coercion – not consent. Because democracy depends not only on elections, but also strong and accountable institutions, and respect for the rights of minorities.
The following sounds like more of the neoliberalism that has devastated the lives of ordinary people in many parts of Asia and Latin America and now threatens the health of democracy in Europe and especially the United States:
Drawing from what we’ve learned around the world, we think it’s important to focus on trade, not just aid; and investment, not just assistance. The goal must be a model in which protectionism gives way to openness; the reigns of commerce pass from the few to the many, and the economy generates jobs for the young. America’s support for democracy will therefore be based on ensuring financial stability; promoting reform; and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy – starting with Tunisia and Egypt.
First, we have asked the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to present a plan at next week’s G-8 summit for what needs to be done to stabilize and modernize the economies of Tunisia and Egypt. Together, we must help them recover from the disruption of their democratic upheaval, and support the governments that will be elected later this year. And we are urging other countries to help Egypt and Tunisia meet its near-term financial needs.
There is more along those lines. This jumped jumped out at me:
And we will work with allies to refocus the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development so that it provides the same support for democratic transitions and economic modernization in the Middle East and North Africa as it has in Europe.
Fourth, the United States will launch a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa. If you take out oil exports, this region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland. So we will work with the EU to facilitate more trade within the region, build on existing agreements to promote integration with U.S. and European markets, and open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement. Just as EU membership served as an incentive for reform in Europe, so should the vision of a modern and prosperous economy create a powerful force for reform in the Middle East and North Africa. [my emphasis]
This sounds like some kind of projection of long-standing American policy that saw the EU as a welfare system for eastern Europe, not incidentally weakening the EU as a potential "peer competitor" to the US. Since the result of that policy is to leave the EU in a crisis of existence at the moment, I have to wonder how eager Europe will be to embrace such a vision.
The United States need, above all, a foreign policy that is far less based on war and the threat of war. We need a policy that promotes civil society development that is not a direct instrument of power politics and subversion of regimes we consider hostile. There are actually models for such a process, such as the interaction of peace and democracy activists in West and East Germany.
But that same example would also serve to show how both the East and West German government sought to use such interactions for their own more narrow political purposes. The best way to promote democracy is to practice it ourselves in the United States. Not allowing the President to be selected by the Supreme Court as in 2000, for instance. Now allowing candidates to be bought and sold by corporations like they were sports advertisements would also be a good step. The role that the EU played in the 1990s and 2000s in promoting democracy and the rule of law is a good example of how practicing democracy can encourage the same in other countries.
But right now, the United States remains stuck in a kind of "live by the sword, die by the sword" militarization of foreign policy. It's benefits in the short run are highly questionable. In the long run, it's a major disaster. We need to break out of the deadly foreign policy cycle in which we're caught.