My latest piece for PunditWire looks at some of the feeble messages emanating from President Obama’s much heralded Cairo speech in 2009 and wonders if they missed the point.

It notes that the vast crowds in Cairo demonstrating against the Muslim Brotherhood have been identifying the current US Ambassador by name in their angry denunciations of Washington’s policy:

As a former Ambassador myself, I can tell you that once a vast unhappy crowd starts carrying pictures of your country’s ambassador and calls for her/him to pack up and go home, things have gone badly wrong in the bilateral relationship. Thus with US Ambassador Anne Patterson in Cairo. She is seen by large parts of Egyptian society as a symbol of incompetent US meddling. She is denounced for getting too ‘involved’ in Egyptians’ affairs or for backing the wrong side, or both.

How did US diplomacy in the Middle East reach this sorry pass? I can’t help feeling that the famous speech delivered by President Obama in Cairo in June 2009 gives us some clues.

The first thing to note is that it was amazingly long. It weighed in at over 6050 words. Too many.

The second is that the speech was delivered not long after President Obama assumed office. He was at the height of his popular appeal as the Anti-Bush. By making this major speech in Egypt, the largest country in the so-called Arab world, he wanted to signal a clean break with nasty right-wing American policies (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran) and proclaim a new start based not on military might and intervention but rather on ‘dialogue’. Not necessarily a bad idea. But it needed doing guilefully. Dialogue is often good. The problem is what to say, and what the other side hears. And then what to do if the other side isn’t really listening, or doesn’t like what it hears…


It boiled down to a well delivered speech full of clever emollient phrases that ultimately sent a message of appeasement to militant Islamist tendencies: Under my restrained leadership the United States will respect and accept conservative forms of Islam. Even if Islamism gets too aggressive we don’t plan to do much about it. And we may not be too active in supporting Muslim liberal trends either. Steady as she goes. And btw I do hope you have noticed that I am not G.W. Bush.

This limp approach quickly led to the awe-inspiring failure of Washington (with EU capitals meekly tucking in behind) to articulate a strong case for regime change in Iran when so many Iranians actually wanted something like our form of pluralism. That in turn left ‘the West’ responding fitfully and uncertainly to the Arab Spring events.

More generally, this speech moved US policy back from President Bush’s ill-fated ‘freedom agenda’ into a new version of an old bad habit. For decades too long Western capitals nodded deferentially at dreary national socialistic and other autocratic regimes across the Middle East, caught between a racist view that ‘Arabs can’t run a modern open society’ and a fear of anything which might threaten ‘stability’.

The main failure of President Obama’s Cairo speech was that it talked about the wrong things. He so wanted to avoid causing offence that he avoided making the most basic strong points in favour of intelligent modern pluralism.

Now 200 or so weeks later Egypt itself is in political turmoil and struggling even to give its population basic food. Does any policy response to this disaster have a chance of working? And won’t any US Ambassador who actively tries to help end up being vilified?

What a complete mess. You reap what you sow.

Not that there are many good options given the desperate economic consequences of decades of Arab-style national socialism in Egypt, but at least the key principles of the ‘Western’ position should by now be clear.