All politicians like to talk but only few have the gift of oration. Barack Obama is among those few, and he will certainly go down in history as one of those presidents who was successful in marking his political thought in and through speeches.
This has not always earned him applause, which is not surprising considering how much of contemporary speech-writing is single-minded or given to the art of manipulation. Yet Obama’s discourse is much less the product of stage management, as is shown, among else, by the way it is coherent without being theoretically consistent.
His inclination towards reflection—this too has been ridiculed. Specifically, he has been criticized for failing to deliver a concise doctrine or paradigm—for instance, on foreign policy. Is he an idealist or a realist? What vision does he have regarding the role of the United States on the global stage? Does he have a vision at all? Is he able to pull it through? These have been some of the frontal or side-attacks that have accompanied him since his inauguration and which are bound to accentuate in the near future in view of next year’s elections.
In fact, what Obama has always been—and in that quite consistently—is both realist and idealist, and the same holds for his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which is why they make a good policy couple—as also argued by Ryan Lizza in his recent contribution to ‘The New Yorker’ entitled ‘The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring Remade Obama’s Foreign Policy’.
Obama’s May 19 Middle East Speech is one example of his specific take on American foreign policy. Besides being eloquent, it raised important signposts:
• The continuing belief in universal human rights, human dignity, the rights of minorities, the rights of women, that all humans are equal, that “people should govern themselves” and the significance of self-determination (idealism).
• The recognition that it was not politics, and idealism, alone that drove the protests, but rather that “the tipping point … is the more constant concern of putting food on the table and providing for a family” (realism)
• The admission that, of course, the United States is following its own interests in the region (“we … respond in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security”) (realism);
• Yet “the narrow pursuit of these interests” is not wise, since “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 own interests at their own expense” (idealism).
This balance act between idealism and realism is also displayed in Obama’s approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Only days following George J. Mitchell’s resignation as Special Envoy to the Middle East, Obama asserted Mitchell’s approach, namely, to use “the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” towards a two-state solution and a basis for negotiations on the four principal issues, namely, territory, security, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.
Moreover, it is not for the United States to take the lead in the resolution of this conflict, but “it is up to Israelis and Palestinians to take action”; and, likewise, it is not for the United States to prescribe to Israel whether or not to engage in direct talks with Hamas, now that Hamas and Fatah are planning reconciliation, but for Palestinians to provide “a credible answer” to Israel’s concerns.
Since 2008 the Obama administration has come under attack for not doing enough in the Middle East—other than offering well-meaning speeches every now and then. But if we believe in democracy, then we also believe in openness, responsibility and the power of speech. Barack Obama’s realist idealism is definitely democratic.