As the Middle East continues its bloody tussle for democracy, the “leader of the free world,” US President Barack Obama, is fielding criticisms for his lack of direct involvement.  His role as a moral referee disappoints those who expected his contribution to be greater – because, they argue, he exalted the benefits of democracy during a speech in Cairo in 2009.  Respected British journalist Robert Fisk tinkered with Obama’s own metaphor vis-à-vis Iran when he said, “One of the blights of history will now involve a U.S. president who held out his hand to the Islamic world and then clenched his fist when it fought a dictatorship and demanded democracy…”

In separate articles, Fisk describes the Obama administration’s response to the uprisings in the Middle East as “pussyfooting nonsense” and again cries foul of promises made and broken, “So when the Arabs want dignity and self-respect, when they cry out for the very future which Obama outlined in his famous – now, I suppose, infamous – Cairo speech of June 2009, we show them disrespect and casuistry.”  Other journalists, such as Gerald Greene, echo the sentiment, “The way that the Obama administration has been reacting to the Egyptian Revolution… is making his June 2009 Cairo speech appear insincere and just another dose of soaring Obama rhetoric…”

Such accusations are unfair, but not new.  When Iran erupted in mass protests following its presidential elections — eight days after Obama’s speech in Cairo — commentators denounced his reaction (condemning the violence against protesters) as too timid and demanded direct intervention.  But other than persuading Twitter from undertaking planned maintenance during the prime organising hours of Iran’s opposition, Obama steadfastly refused to take practical measures.  This prompted his erstwhile rival, Senator John McCain, to say, “It’s almost as if the president lacks confidence in the greatness of his own nation.  He seems unwilling to aggressively project American global power, as if it were something to be ashamed of.”  When asked whether direct intervention would undermine Iran’s sovereignty, McCain exclaimed righteously, “… I don’t consider it meddling when you stand on the side of principles that made our nation the greatest in history.”

But it was precisely this sort of arrogant interference that made the United States unpopular among Arab states – indeed, around the world.  And it is an attitude Obama specifically sought to distance himself from when he addressed the Islamic world from Cairo.  He said, “Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire…”  In his own eloquent way, he added – “any more.”

Obama was well aware that he wasn’t the first US president to wax lyrical about the benefits of democracy for the Middle East.  His predecessor, George W. Bush, denounced the “legacy of torture, oppression, misery and ruin” left by dictatorships in Iraq and Syria and in 2003 he suggested that some governments in the region – specifically Morocco, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Yemen – were “beginning to see the need for change.”  Unlike Obama, Bush was prepared to use direct intervention to achieve his vision for a better world – he called it “The Freedom Agenda.”  With stunning contradiction, American forces invaded Iraq after the 9/11 attacks and Bush announced that his goal was to spread freedom in the Middle East.  He compared his push for global democracy with the legacy of his Republican predecessor, Ronald Reagan.  During the Cold War, Reagan, a staunch opponent of communism, ordered the creation of a nuclear defense shield (dubbed “Star Wars” by disbelieving critics) and issued statements such as the following, “The Soviets themselves may, in a limited way, be coming to understand the importance of freedom.”  (Incidentally, Reagan bombed Libya in 1986 in an attempt to assassinate Gaddafi.) And as Obama pointed out in Cairo, it was during the Cold War, that “Muslim nations were treated as proxies.”  At any rate, despite Bush’s rhetoric and gung-ho foreign policies, few outside his Republican party were convinced that his motives were sincere.  The recipients of his ‘agenda’ made it clear during repeated anti-US protests that they did not appreciate the gesture – nor the thinly-veiled self-interest contained within.

Furthermore, Fisk’s criticisms are somewhat contradictory.  On the one hand, he has accused the United States and Europe of “turning our backs… on the wind of change… blowing across the Arab world” but apportioned blame to these outside powers when Mubarak appointed a cronie vice-president before stepping down, “…ex-air force General Mubarak is put out to graze so that ex-intelligence General Suleiman can take over the regime on behalf of America and Israel.”  A day after Fisk’s comments appeared, Suleiman succumbed to the pressure exerted by millions of protesters, by announcing that Mubarak was stepping down and he too ceased being vice-president.  When the prime minister appointed by Muburak also resigned, Bassem Kamel, a member of the coalition involved in the uprising tweeted, “First, we ousted Mubarak. Secondly, we got rid of Shafiq. We have become again the owners of this country.”  Throughout the uprisings in Egypt, Obama said he had been struck by the lack of anti-US sentiment, because “they felt we hadn’t tried to engineer or impose a particular outcome, but rather they owned it.”  What substantial evidence gives Fisk cause to believe otherwise?

Indeed, what was refreshing about Obama’s speech in Cairo was the fact that he expressed his support for the spread of democracy in the region while emphasising that any such transitions would not be steered by the United States.  He approached the subject with sensitivity — by first acknowledging that it has become a thorny one, “I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq.  So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.”  Obama recognised that meaningful political reform can only be achieved from within, and that it may take on many forms.  He said, “Each nation gives life to this principle [of representative government] 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.”  The 44th US president proceeded to quote its third, Thomas Jefferson, “I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

Obama also made it clear that if a struggle to oust a repressive regime should fail and a humanitarian crisis ensue, the U.S. would act according to the consensus of the United Nations (nevertheless, Obama placed sanctions on Libyan dictator Gaddafi’s assets two days before the UN passed an unanimous resolution to do so).  America “cannot impose peace,” he said, but would “align our policies with those who pursue peace.”  After concluding his remarks on democracy, a member of the audience in Cairo yelled out, “Barack Obama, we love you!”

Obama’s approach to the uprisings in the Middle East reflects an awareness that the region has tired of the colonialism to which it owes its very name.  In Cairo, he said, “More recently, tension has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims…”  Meddling, irrespective of the potential to disguise it, is out.  Why?  Because America didn’t like it either. When re-branding America to the Muslim world and beyond, Obama reminded his audience that the US was “born out of revolution against an empire” – that same British empire (plus a French one) that partitioned the Middle East into separate nations following the First World War, and retained a colonial presence until the 1970s – from which point the US (and its endorsed dictatorships) largely took over.  When Obama campaigned for the US presidency on the basis that he represented change, why can’t we believe that he meant it?