President Obama opened his Middle East address today by referring to a "new chapter in American diplomacy," but it was largely a very conventional exercise in American lecturing to the region on how it must and will develop. Pariah states were threatened with continued isolation, allies were barely nudged to change their behavior, and the latest Western military intervention was touted as evidence "that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator." Perhaps the most striking part of the speech was the minimal attention paid to NATO’s ongoing war in Libya, which is all the more remarkable given the enormous emphasis that advocates for this war originally placed on the war's importance to the "Arab Spring" and America’s reputation in the region.
Before the U.S. and European allies started bombing Libya, proponents of intervention said that siding militarily with the Libyan opposition was vitally important to keeping protest movements in the region from being smothered, and they said it was necessary to deter other authoritarian rulers from resorting to brute force to suppress protests. Violence in Syria suggests that intervening in Libya may have encouraged people to rise up in protest, but it clearly did not discourage Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad from using the armed forces to crush resistance. The "demonstration effect" of Libya has not happened, not least because what happened in Libya was never crucial to the success or failure of other protest movements.
The speech also contained a number of ultimatums to the Syrian government on what it "must" do, but fortunately stopped short of outlining what the consequences of failing to comply would be. These ultimatums appear to be empty rhetoric, which raises the question of why they were included. They are bound to encourage hawks eager for more direct U.S. action, just as Obama’s statement that Moammar Gadhafi "must go" provided the basis for the case for military action. While Obama referred to Syria’s growing isolation, the truth is that Assad can brutally suppress and kill protesters with greater impunity because his regime is not nearly as isolated as Gadhafi’s, and because Syria is far more important to many other governments. The "hangover" from Western governments’ extremely broad interpretation of the Security Council resolution on Libya seems to have ensured that there will be no international agreement on punitive measures of any kind directed at Syria.
Later in the speech, Bahrain's and Yemen's governments received mild rebukes, and Obama made no mention at all of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council military intervention in Bahrain. Considering how badly U.S. relations with the Gulf monarchies in particular have deteriorated in the past four months, that may be just as well, but the omission was all the more noticeable given that Obama did make some criticisms of Bahrain's government. Presumably, Obama avoided mentioning the GCC's support for Bahrain's crackdown because several of its members were instrumental in lending Arab support to the Libyan war, and so it is as if their concerted counterrevolutionary actions never took place.
Obama failed once again to explain how he will be able to prevent the U.S. role in Libya from expanding as European militaries prove incapable of removing Gadhafi from power. Consistent with the administration’s strategic view that Libya is, in fact, a "sideshow," there were just two paragraphs of the speech devoted to the subject, and Obama simply declared that Gadhafi's downfall was inevitable, although previously he had stated that NATO will continue fighting until Gadhafi is gone. It is hard to imagine how Gadhafi could remain in power beyond the end of the year, but he has so far proven overconfident interventionists' estimates wrong on a number of occasions and might do so again.
A long, drawn-out conflict in Libya bodes ill not just for Libya, but for its neighbors as well. The conflict is generating instability and tensions along its borders with Tunisia and Egypt, with large numbers of refugees and shelling of Tunisian territory. Worsening shortages of food and medicine in both eastern and western Libya mean that a conflict prolonged and intensified by outside intervention could create a nationwide humanitarian disaster, whose effects will spill over into those countries that may have the best chance of a successful political transition to more representative government. Obama likely paid so little attention to the Libyan war in his speech because it has not had the political effects it was supposed to have, and it could end up undermining the other political transitions in North Africa that it was supposed to protect.