Obama: fine words, but what about Shaker?

Reaction to President Obama’s speech on the Middle East and North Africa looks pretty mixed to me.

For example, BBC News Online’s vox pop of some voices from the region was an interesting snapshot. Mohammed in Tobruk in Libya (ie not Gaddafi-controlled) found it “optimistic”, while Kais in Tunisia saw it as a “not very credible” speech. Meanwhile – in quite a nice formulation – Zakaria in Cairo found it by turns “very positive, positive, neutral and vague”.

At the political level, on one side of the spectrum you had Libya’s government labelling Obama “delusional” and Syria’s official news agency saying the speech “offered nothing new”. For the Israelis the reference to a two-state solution based on 1967 Israel borders has gone down like a lead balloon and has itself triggered gazillions of column inches ahead of Binyamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington today. Meanwhile, the Huffington Post’s Josef Olmert hailed Obama’s peroration as “innovative, comprehensive, visionary”.

Presumably this was all (more or less) intended. Of course the speech’s main purpose – rhetorically at least – was to position the USA on the side of the Arab spring’s peaceful protestors. Overnight, the sound-bite I kept hearing was how the US saw the plight of the "street vendor in Tunisia" as more important than the "raw power" of a regional dictator. Fine words. And more fine words here: the Middle East uprisings presented "a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past, and the promise of the future". (Incidentally, I wonder how much the scriptwriters get paid for this kind of purple prose?!)

OK it's slightly soapy, soapbox-y stuff, but I'm with him on the basic sentiments. Yes, it’s needs follow-through and a serious re-balancing of foreign policy (Amnesty's Malcolm Smart had called for even-handedness – ie hold Bahrain, Israel and Saudi Arabia to the same standards you expect of Libya or Syria), and yes, predictably, the speech itself (never mind future policy) fell considerably short of this.

But let’s look at the big positive. It's still good to see a US president lauding those from the region who’ve taken to the streets to “demand their basic human rights”.

But hang on! Basic human rights are basic human rights, and I’d like to know why the US says it supports them for people in Tripoli or Damascus but not in its own backyard in Guantánamo Bay? Because, by any measure, holding 171 detainees without charge or trial for the best part of a decade is a flagrant violation of basic human rights (indeed, it’s the sort of behaviour that was typical under Hosni Mubarak in Egypt).

As readers of this blog will know (c’mon on, you do!), the former UK resident Shaker Aamer is one of the Guantánamo detainees being denied the rights that Obama is publicly celebrating in the Middle East. When the president meets David Cameron during his state visit to the UK next week perhaps he’ll be hearing something from the PM about Shaker Aamer (you can support the Amnesty appeal on Shaker here).

So my verdict: Obama’s pretty good at themed speeches; he’s much less good at ensuring the US lives up to his own polished oratory.

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