Asked by a journalist during the difficult days of the late 1950s, what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously replied: “Events, my dear boy, events.” Listening to US President Barack Obama’s speech about the US’s policy towards the Arab world, it was hard to avoid the unbearable weight of recent events in the region.
When he came to power a couple of years ago, Obama was determined to become the anti-Bush president. Gone were the days of the freedom agenda. In his Cairo speech, the new president made it abundantly clear that the US would no longer push other countries to change their regimes. Instead of “coercive regime change,” “engagement” with adversaries had become Obama’s norm.
This was the new paradigm for America’s approach to countries like Syria. The US would no longer seek to impose its political views on others. Some saw this as a shift from neo-conservatism and idealism to pragmatic realism. Now, two years after the Cairo speech, contrast the engagement policy with the words President Obama used on Thursday for Syria: “President [Bashar al-]Assad can lead that transition or get out of the way.” So, what is different to warrant such a drastic change? Why this radical shift from engagement to a call for Assad’s departure from power? As Macmillan said, the answer is: “Events, my dear boy, events.” When you have hundreds of people being killed in the streets of Syria because they demand change and freedom, the facts on the grounds are no longer the same. Obama, above all, is a pragmatist. Rational, pragmatic people change their analysis when the facts on the ground change. This is what differentiates them from ideologues, who are seldom bothered by facts. Their blind attachment to their views becomes dogmatic. For instance, George W. Bush had a dogmatic attachment to the “freedom agenda.” He was an ideologue who believed with religious zeal that America had a duty to change the world and was willing to use military force to do so. Today, it is not Obama that is demanding or imposing regime change in Syria. Instead, it is the Syrian people who are calling for it. Of course, the closer you look at issues the more complex they become. Some argue that there is still a silent majority in Syria who support Assad, but one thing is clear: Even the silent majority wants a transition to a democratic, less corrupt, more modern Syria. And this is why Obama chose his words carefully. As he put it, Assad still has the option to “lead the transition.”
Another much-taunted part of Obama’s speech was about Israel and his emphasis on a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. There was much debate before the speech about whether the president would even mention the Peace Process. According to many, the speech needed to be only about democracy in the Arab world and provide no distractions from that message. With Hamas having just joined the Palestinian government, prospects for any breakthrough were dim and therefore the president should not waste his political capital on this issue. Yet, Obama disagreed with such views. As was clear in his speech, there is now a new sense of urgency about the need for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Simply put, time is not on Israel’s side. Israel has already lost Turkey and Egypt. It may soon lose Jordan and the stability of Saudi Arabia is not guaranteed. Although Obama made it clear that any solution would have to take into consideration the 1967 borders, his speech clearly emphasized that there will also have to be some swaps and adjustments to these borders. Unlike what his detractors are arguing, Obama was not categorical about the 1967 borders. Not being categorical is the trademark of Obama’s of pragmatic realism. He surely knows that some flexibility is needed for peace.
Yet, not surprisingly Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the anti-Obama wing of the Israel lobby decided to put on a political show. In his Oval Office, Netanyahu focused on the 1967 borders as if Obama had not mentioned necessary swaps and adjustments. Time will only tell if Netanyahu can learn to change his mind when the facts on the ground change.