Goodbye Nation-Building, Hello Nation-Facilitating

The vision and the frustration behind Obama’s Middle East speech.

President Obama committed to sanctions against Bashar Assad in his speech Thursday

Do you remember how wisely, how patiently, President George H.W. Bush presided over Eastern Europe’s transition from communism to freedom? Do you remember how calm he was when the Soviet Union suddenly collapsed? Now think again: Do you remember any of the speeches Bush made during that period? And if you happen to be one of the few policy wonks (or freaks) who do remember, do you recall any of Bush’s orations more than you remember Ronald Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech?

Dramatic events are now transforming the Middle East. They are surprising, exciting, and frightening the people of the region and those watching them from afar. “[T]he events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and strategies of diversion will not work anymore”’ President Barack Obama said today in one of the overstatements included in his much-anticipated Middle East policy speech. People think that great changes like this provide the proper background for great speeches. But that isn’t quite true.

Most great speeches are recognized as such because of the boldness of a timely call to action that follows the speech. Alas, in the Middle East, the United States has not assumed the role of an active player and was never expected to intervene in most of the restive countries (Libya being the exception). “The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds,” Obama declared. The United States was taken by surprise when the uprisings started, and now it is cautiously navigating its way day by day, week by week, country by country, despotic ruler by despotic ruler. Mostly, Washington is trying not to make mistakes, not to interrupt, not to fall on the wrong side of the history that other people are driving.

There was no tear-down-this-wall moment for Obama as he tried to clarify U.S. policy in the region at this troubled time. Hence the smart and calculated economic measures aimed at assisting Middle East reformers who want to navigate the treacherous path to modernity and liberalism—that’s smart, but not exactly exciting or inspiring. Here’s one of Obama’s action items: “We’ve asked the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to present a plan at next week’s G8 summit for what needs to be done to stabilize and modernize the economies of Tunisia and Egypt.” To his credit, Obama is trying to do what’s possible and what might be of value. But by doing so, he might have to face the annoying fate that befell Bush senior: presiding responsibly over the revolution that his predecessor will get credit for making happen.

It must be frustrating for a country of doers, such as America, to have to assume the role of the bystander. It must be frustrating for a young and ambitious president to have nothing more to offer than encouragement, analysis (“change of this magnitude does not come easily”), opinions (“Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo”), and funding (“we will relieve a democratic Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt”)—pending good behavior and congressional approval. If the first decade of the 21st century was marked by the great debate about America’s attempt at “nation-building” in the greater Middle East, it seems that the second decade will consign Americans to “nation-facilitating.”

Facilitating new nations sounds important enough—and it is important. Some of the measures Obama announced today might also prove to be meaningful and helpful. But if you have any doubts as to whether facilitating is as significant as building, try imagining Bob the Builder turning into Bob the Facilitator, and you’ll see why Obama’s speech seemed a little stiff, a little boring, marred with the language and detail of “development” (three times), “process” (twice), and lots of dull, procedural words (“a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative”). The builder is manly, active, risk-taking; the facilitator is more bureaucratic, more lawyerly, dare I say more of an Obama than a Bush?

The president’s message was understandably upbeat. He was trying to argue that this is a time of opportunity—and that might still prove to be true. But let’s not ignore reality. Right now, the Middle East is a total mess. The Egyptian revolution is stuck in midair; the Libyan mission has yet to be successful; Syria is soaked in blood; Palestinians are being killed as they try to force their way across the Israeli border; Lebanon is barely independent; Bahrain is trembling; Iran is still advancing its military nuclear program; and the list goes on.

It’s fine for the president to argue that the timely achievement of killing Osama Bin Laden will be a watershed event, leading to a freer, more prosperous, and more moderate Middle East. It is fine for him to hope, as long as such hope isn’t mistakenly or deliberately confused with reality.

Obama’s Middle East speech wasn’t at all revolutionary; it didn’t present any ideas we haven’t heard before; it didn’t come up with strategy that will one day be called “grand.” But that doesn’t mean the speech wasn’t good or worthy. “[W]e must proceed with a sense of humility,” Obama said, and with such proper humility he made a leap of both faith and some courage. In fact, this leap was felt more concretely earlier this week, when the Obama administration slapped Syrian President Bashir Assad with more meaningful sanctions than those of previous cycles, demanding that he “lead a political transition or leave.” This looks like the crossing of a political Rubicon.

Consider this: Obama will have two distinguished guests in the White House this week, King Abdullah of Jordan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Both countries have a border with Syria. Both leaders loathe Assad and condemn his behavior, but both also dread the possible consequences for Syria and its neighbors if and when Assad leaves the scene. Both leaders came to Washington to hear that Obama had already made up his mind: He is going to push the butcher of Damascus around as much as he possibly can, no matter how bad a short-term impact this might have on Syria’s neighbors. He is going to support the restive Syrians, even though he has no way of knowing what the outcome of regime change in Damascus might be.

Obama made a commitment by tightening the noose around Assad, and he sealed this commitment in today’s speech. He seems to have made his peace with the policy Washington will pursue: no more looking the other way, no more nuance, no more exceptions. “The status quo is unsustainable.” From now on, the United States will support the restive publics throughout the Middle East. From now on, fear of chaos and instability is being pushed aside. Quoting President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address would have been the masterstroke—it didn’t happen this time, but there may be another opportunity down the road. Didn’t Bush say it all: “[I]t is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”