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A Critical Retrospective on Obama’s Rhetoric of New Beginnings

Obama’s impressive oratorical skills rocketed him onto the national stage of US politics in 2004 when he delivered a speech of stunning eloquence at the Democratic Party national convention.

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by Lisa Hajjar

“Who is that guy?” Barack Obama’s impressive oratorical skills rocketed him onto the national stage of US politics in 2004 when he, then a freshman senator from Illinois, delivered a speech of stunning eloquence at the Democratic Party national convention. Four years later, he won two decisive victories, first beating Hillary Clinton to become the Democratic Party nominee and then beating Republican Party nominee John McCain to become the president of the United States. Obama’s smooth and imaginative rhetoric was one of the ways his victory seemed to herald a turning point after eight years of George W. “I’m the Decider” Bush’s bullying inarticulateness.

In May 2009, five months into his first term, President Obama chose Cairo University as the stage to showcase his oratorical skills for the world. The context, or perhaps the pretext, was the “war on terror,” which was heading into its eighth year. He came to Cairo, he said, “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect…” That outreach speech was one of the reasons the Nobel Peace Prize Committee decided to bestow the 2009 prize on him. The irony of the speech and the prize, as would soon become clear, was that President Obama would expand the “war on terror” geographically; the “new beginning” in US policy was delivered by Predator drones.

Foggy Bottom

And then, two years later, came the so-called “Arab spring,” which appeared as a new beginning of sorts, albeit one that had caught the United States in a state of hegemonic unawareness. On 19 May 2011, President Obama delivered a speech on the Middle East from a podium at the State Department. The focus was not the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden eighteen days earlier, although that event featured in his remarks. Rather, he was attempting to catch up with the tumult spreading across the region, and to put a presidential spin on the populist protests that had led to the ousting of two US allies, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

The Tunisian uprising, which started in December 2010, produced a hasty and decisive regime-changing result when Ben Ali fled the country on 14 January 2011. By contrast, the revolution in Egypt, which started later in January, was more pitched and protracted and, perhaps for that reason, inspiring of revolutionary uprisings in Yemen, Syria, Libya, and to a lesser extent Morocco.

Initial US responses to the Egyptian revolution were defined by concerns about how to square support for the known-quantity authoritarian Mubarak with demands chanted by millions of Egyptians who had taken to the streets to rail against the status quo. The Obama administration’s State Department led by Secretary of State Clinton responded to revolutionary demands not by endorsing them but rather by pressuring Mubarak to fill the long-vacant vice president position with Egypt’s military spymaster and the CIA’s point-man in Cairo, Omar Suleiman; Washington hoped Suleiman could succeed Mubarak, thus preserving “stability” while applying a veneer of “change.” While Mubarak followed that advice by promoting Suleiman, the transition did not transpire in line with Foggy Bottom aspirations. By the time Obama took to the State Department podium, Mubarak was gone, replaced by a military junta that titled itself the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The preceding months had made clear to revolutionaries and those supportive of their struggles that the United States had badly fumbled this unique opportunity to align the president’s penchant for democracy-loving rhetoric with a course change in policy. If not now, when?

New Beginnings Take Two

Obama started his 2011 speech with echoes of the new-beginnings optimism of his 2009 Cairo speech. He predicted that the “extraordinary change” taking place across the Arab world would mark a “new chapter in American diplomacy.” On display was his signature understatement: “Two leaders have stepped aside.” His next line—“More might follow”—was at once elusive if the objective was to convey a purportedly new chapter, and vividly clear that the United States was not going to activate a course change to support the anti-authoritarian waves of revolt.

Rather, Obama’s high-minded rhetoric was in keeping with a long tradition of US presidential foreign policy speeches in which Americans’ collective self-regard as a role model of freedom was translated into a narrative of international inspiration. He stated:

There are times in the course of history when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has been building up for years. In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat. So it was in Tunisia, as that vendor’s act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, then thousands. And in the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home—day after day, week after week—until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power.

Obama described America’s role in the region during his presidency as a teleology of immanent progress; using the first-person plural (we), he cited recent developments that ostensibly were making the Middle East a better place: 

After years of war in Iraq, we’ve removed 100,000 American troops and ended our combat mission there. In Afghanistan, we’ve broken the Taliban’s momentum, and this July we will begin to bring our troops home and continue a transition to Afghan lead. And after years of war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, we have dealt al Qaeda a huge blow by killing its leader, Osama bin Laden.

But when he turned to an explanation for the revolutions, the first-person plural disappears and the hegemon is occluded by passive voice: “In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of a few. In too many countries, a citizen like that young vendor had nowhere to turn—no honest judiciary to hear his case; no independent media to give him voice; no credible political party to represent his views; no free and fair election where he could choose his leader.” As if, a listener might be inclined to think, these conditions were perpetuated by dark magical forces rather than perpetrated by political choices and economic policies. While Obama pointed an accusatory finger at those (Arabs) who demand bribes from their country-people to make opportunities happen, he did not even hint at US responsibility for the global bribe of neoliberalism that is the “Washington consensus” or for the repression that is abetted by US weapons sales, CIA scheming, or an ever-enlarging geopolitical footprint of military base-building to project US power abroad. 

Obama was at his most rhetorically deft when he pivoted among what was (authoritarian stasis), what is (Arab spring upheavals), and what should be (futuristic freedom). Laying out why “America” is so essential—then, now, and forever—he returns to the first-person plural:

The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds. For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.

We will continue to do these things, with the firm belief that America’s interests are not hostile to people’s hopes; they’re essential to them…As we did in the Gulf War [1991], we will not tolerate aggression across borders, and we will keep our commitments to friends and partners.

Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind. Moreover, failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense… 

So we face a historic opportunity. We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator. There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity….[A]fter decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be (emphasis added). 

Like the naked emperor admiring his beautiful robes in the mirror, Obama ignores the made-in-the-USA labels on tear gas canisters in Cairo and Manama. He castigates those who would perpetrate “aggression across borders” without seeing the expansion of drone warfare and the pile-up of civilian casualties that bejewel his own policies. He sees the political warts of some of the region’s dictators—the bad ones, like Libya’s Qaddafi and Syria’s Assad—who must go! But he has another prescription for other of the region’s dictators—the useful ones, like Yemen’s Saleh or the kleptocratic royal families of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Gulf monarchies—who must reform, please! 

When it comes to Iraq, Obama’s new beginnings rhetoric relies on willful blindness about the devastating consequences of US interventionism and occupation, which go unmentioned let alone criticized. He sees Iraq rising like a majestic phoenix from some inexplicable ashes. 

In Iraq, we see the promise of a multiethnic, multi-sectarian democracy. The Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence in favor of a democratic process, even as they’ve taken full responsibility for their own security. Of course, like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress. And as they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.

Following some well-crafted platitudes about “young people,” women, the internet, and the need for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Obama close his 2011 speech like a good hegemon would:

Our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire. Our people fought a painful Civil War that extended freedom and dignity to those who were enslaved. And I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of nonviolence as a way to perfect our union—organizing, marching, protesting peacefully together to make real those words that declared our nation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” 

Those words must guide our response to the change that is transforming the Middle East and North Africa….[T]he United States of America was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves. And now we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.

An Era of Unprecedented Violence

The optimism that seasoned Obama’s 2011 Arab spring speech did not hold up well in the years to follow. What rose like a phoenix from ashes was not “Iraq,” or “the people” of the Arab world, but the Islamic State, a terrorist start-up whose top leaders, including Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had met while imprisoned in the notorious US detention facility at Camp Bucca. Indeed, Islamic State was a direct by-product of the US war and occupation of Iraq, and it capitalized on the instability there to conquer significant parts of the country. In Syria, non-violent anti-regime protests had turned into a war which has produced one of the largest humanitarian disasters since World War II in terms of civilians killed and displaced. There, too, the Islamic State set up headquarters, and became one of the multiple parties wreaking carnage on Syria.

Over the following years, President Obama resisted hawkish calls to send troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State; his aversion to “boots on the ground”—except for CIA and Special Forces—was compensated by the decision in August 2014 to shift some drones from Afghanistan and to take the lead in a multinational air war on the organization in Syria as well as Iraq. By the end of 2016, almost sixty-three thousand coalition bombs and missiles had been fired in the two countries.

In Yemen, the Obama administration’s relentless drone warfare had the blowback effect of boosting the popularity of the main target, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The mass protests in Sana’a and other sites around the country eventually unseated the strongman leader, Saleh. But in the aftermath of that transition, Yemen became the setting for an ostensibly “Shi’i-Sunni” proxy war between Iran, which supports Houthis who took over in the post-Saleh vacuum, and Saudi Arabia, whose merciless and US-supported bombing campaign has devastated an already poor country, causing malnutrition and starvation to reach epic proportions among the population.

Libya was the one country where an organized international intervention was mounted by the United States under the auspices of NATO to protect anti-Qaddafi protesters, many of whom were armed from the outset. The regime was destroyed, but the country was pitched into a new phase of instability and strife, and it became a North African foothold for Islamic State. And Egypt, jewel of the Arab spring crown, is now ruled by another dim-witted strongman, and the regime’s net of repression is wider than the worst years under Mubarak.

Talking in the Twilight

On 6 December 2016, President Obama delivered his last major foreign policy speech. Absent was the outreaching, uplifting rhetoric of speeches past. In the twilight of his presidency, he spoke from a podium at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, and before an audience of soldiers, including Special Forces. This was all very fitting because Obama is the first president in US history to serve two full terms “during a time of war,” one that was already seven years old when he was elected. The central topic was US counterterrorism and military policy.

Obama explained the devastating wars engulfing many Arab countries as though their causes lay entirely within the region, rhetorically immunizing the role of the United States.

In too many parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, there has been a breakdown of order that's been building for decades, and its unleashed forces that are going to take a generation to resolve. Long-term corruption has rotted too many nation-states from within. Governance is collapsing. Sectarian conflicts rage. A changing climate is increasing competition for food and water. And false prophets are peddling a vision of Islam that is irreconcilable with tolerance and modernity and basic science.

One month earlier, Donald Trump had won the election to become the next president of the United States. (Technically, he lost the popular vote by almost three million to his challenger, Hillary Clinton, but won enough Electoral College votes to claim the office.) Trump had run—and won—on a campaign of virulently Islamophobic and hawkish messaging. Although Obama did not directly name Trump in his December speech, the president-elect clearly was haunting his thoughts and prescriptions about a “sustainable counterterrorism strategy.” To Trump’s fearmongering, Obama states: “Today’s terrorists can kill innocent people, but they don't pose an existential threat to our nation, and we must not make the mistake of elevating them as if they do.” To Trump’s warmongering, Obama advises that “we cannot follow the path of previous great powers that sometimes defeated themselves through over-reach.” To Trump’s avowed disdain for law, Obama admonishes that “we need the wisdom to see that upholding our values and adhering to the rule of law is not a weakness; in the long term, it is our greatest strength.” To Trump’s pledge to bring back the waterboard, Obama pats himself on the back for re-prohibiting torture “everywhere, at all times—and that includes tactics like waterboarding. [A]t no time has anybody who has worked with me told me that doing so has cost us good intelligence.” And to Trump’s bombastic rhetoric about Muslims, Obama offers some cautionary and wistful advice: 

The United States of America is not a country that imposes religious tests as a price for freedom. We're a country that was founded so that people could practice their faiths as they choose. The United States of America is not a place where some citizens have to withstand greater scrutiny, or carry a special ID card, or prove that they’re not an enemy from within. We’re a country that has bled and struggled and sacrificed against that kind of discrimination and arbitrary rule, here in our own country and around the world.

History will judge President Obama not by the quality of his speeches but by the legacies of his policies. He inherited the post-9/11 “war on terror” and the expanding national security state—domestic spying and global surveillance, targeted killing, military base-building, and a mandate for Special Forces and CIA agents to hunt and kill. With the exception of boots on the ground, which Obama did bring down in Afghanistan and Iraq during his eight years in office, he increased everything else further. This is the reality that he bequeaths to his successor. How Trump will deal with this inheritance is anyone’s guess at this point.

Although Obama’s rhetoric about new beginnings rarely reflected—and often obscured or denied—reality, his oratorical skills will be missed by those who appreciate such things. Soaring and hopeful rhetoric is not Trump’s style or reflective of his worldview, nor is it within his intellectual reach; the next US president’s communicative capacities are best-suited to his medium of choice, Twitter.

 Lisa Hajjar is a professor of sociology at the University of California-Santa Barbara, and in 2014-2015 she is the Edward Said Chair of American Studies at the American University of Beirut. Her research and writing focus on law and legality, war and conflict, human rights, and torture. She is the author of Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and Gaza (University of California Press, 2005) and Torture: A Sociology of Violence and Human Rights (Routledge, 2013). In addition to being a Co-Editor at Jadaliyya, she serves on the editorial committees of Middle East Report and Journal of Palestine Studies. She is currently working on a book about anti-torture lawyering in the United States.


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