Six years later, the Nobel Committee's choice is the subject of satire. There is widespread disappointment with the Obama administration. Our hopes that soared with Obama's campaign and early speeches have tumbled to earth. Faced with cruel reality, Obama has not managed to bring about meaningful change. In the Middle East our hopes have been dashed by the failed Arab Spring, by civil war in Syria, by the crushing of the Green Revolution in Iran, by the rise of the Islamic State, by the loss of all remaining illusions in Iraq, by the failure of the secular modernists (like El Baradei) in Egyptian elections, by the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood and the reassertion of military dictatorship in Egypt through Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, by anarchy in Libya, by the triumph of Netanyahu over Obama on the Israeli-Palestinian front, by continued occupation, settlement and hardening of ethnic rule in Israel. At home our hopes have been dashed, in part, by the failure to close Guantanamo, by the authorization of hundreds of extra-judicial drone strikes, by the expansion of electronic surveillance by the NSA, the CIA, and their foreign counterparts. Most of these failures and disappointments have had nothing to do with Obama. Nevertheless, by raising our hopes, our disappointments are linked to him, even if it's only in our mind.
Did Obama set himself up for failure? Here is a look back at a portion of the mirage that we (and the Nobel Committee) saw in 2009--a look back at Obama's Cairo speech. Was it worthwhile? Was it naive? Was it counter-productive? What lessons can we draw from it moving forward?
A Vision of Universal ValuesIn his speech, Obama advocated strongly and unabashedly for a Western vision of universal human values. Islam and the West are not incompatible, he said, because, after all, everybody "values tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."
In speaking of democracy, Obama said governments must "reflect the will of the people."
Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.
Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments—provided they govern with respect for all their people. ... So no matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who would hold power: You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.On religion, Obama said that people everywhere should be "free to choose and live their faith based upon the persuasion of the mind and the heart and the soul." Without such freedom of conscience, religion cannot thrive.
Similarly, on women's rights, he said that women who are denied education are denied equality, and that "it is no coincidence that countries in which women are well educated are far more likely to be prosperous..... I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice."
These are Western Enlightenment values we hold dear. Good for Obama for advocating these values, even if it's clear that they are not, in fact, universally held. Indeed the problem in the Middle East these days, is that too many do not value tolerance and the dignity of human beings in the way Obama advocated in his Cairo speech. Many governments around the globe do not honor the principle that government must be by and for the people, and too many do not honor and respect freedom of conscience, let alone the freedom of citizens to express their conscience.
These values championed by Obama in Cairo are necessary ingredients for a modern democratic state. This we believe. These are values we in the West are willing to measure our actions by, even when we betray them, like in our invasion of Iraq, like at Abu Ghraib. It is advice we will continue to give, even when it falls on deaf ears. And they are values by which we will continue to judge others and ourselves. The mistake Obama made, perhaps, was to present these Enlightenment values without sufficient acknowledgment that they are in fact not agreed upon by any government in the Middle East. [Is Tunisia presently a hopeful exception?] Obama did say, "No system of government should be imposed (by) one nation on any other...," but he did not make clear enough that Enlightenment values must be entirely established by the individual nation states and that this is a very long term project.
False Promise of Bold Action
The real mistake of the speech is that it naively raised an expectation of bold concrete action which never came. Obama made an unequivocal promise to the world to close Guantanamo. In this he failed. He vaguely promised action on all aspects of his speech: "words alone cannot meet the needs of our people," he said. "These needs will be met only if we act boldly in the years ahead."
On the Israeli-Palestnian front, especially, he raised unrealistically high expectations:
[T]he Palestinian people—Muslims and Christians—have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they've endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own..... I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience and dedication that the task requires. The obligations—the obligations that the parties have agreed to under the road map are clear. For peace to come, it is time for them—and all of us—to live up to our responsibilities.
Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop. And Israel must also live up to its obligation to ensure that Palestinians can live and work and develop their society. Just as it devastates Palestinian families, the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security; neither does the continuing lack of opportunity in the West Bank. Progress in the daily lives of the Palestinian people must be a critical part of a road to peace, and Israel must take concrete steps to enable such progress. .... It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.This was hopelessly naive. Obama should have known that the Netanyahu government had no intention of following the Oslo road map to peace. The strong reaction of Israel and its lobby in the United States was entirely foreseeable. Netanyahu came to Washington in 2011 to give a speech to Congress and garnered 29 standing ovations. Obama backed down and did nothing.
An Acknowledgement of Wrongdoing
One of the purposes of the speech was to repair relations with the Muslim world after the invasion of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the damage done by rendition, torture, and the pictures of Abu Ghraib. In this the speech was successful. Obama acknowledged that Iraq was a war of choice--a mistake. He acknowledged that the events of 9/11/01 caused us to betray our traditions and values. He announced that he has unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States--and he did. This was productive and useful.
Obama's mistake was a failure to recognize and acknowledge the true challenges ahead, to raise false expectations, and to over-promise. Raising false expectations and making naive promises were self-inflicted wounds that came to haunt the Obama administration regardless of the reason for the subsequent failure to get things accomplished.