Obama's Marshallette Plan Baby Steps for a Tentative Statesman

US President Barack Obama took a long time to come up with his response to the wave of revolution in the Arab world. In a keynote speech, he announced a kind of Marshall Plan for the region. But his goals are modest in comparison to the US's vision in 1947.
Obama's speech is seen on televisions in a Cairo store.

Obama's speech is seen on televisions in a Cairo store.

Foto: Amr Nabil/ AP

When United States President Barack Obama strode up to the podium in the State Department to address the nation on Thursday, one was reminded of George Marshall -- at least a little bit. Just as Secretary of State Marshall did in his June 1947 speech, Obama focused on vital foreign policy fundamentals.

Marshall delivered his speech from the steps of Memorial Church at Harvard University. His remarks were brief and sober -- and focused on the need for the US to help Europe get back on its feet after the terrible violence of World War II. He didn't come prepared with numbers and a detailed plan, but he did have a vision.

And less than a year later, reality followed in the form of the first installments of an aid package that would ultimately reach $13 billion -- the equivalent of $120 billion in today's money. The Marshall Plan, announced almost discretely on that June day, went on to become one of the greatest successes ever in economic history.

Appearances by Barack Obama, of course, can never be quite as modest -- he is, after all, the president of the United States. Furthermore, by the time he began speaking on Thursday, his aides had already ratcheted up expectations. It was to be a keynote speech on the Arab world -- and perhaps even a new beginning for his administration's foreign policy.

Aides had even referenced the Marshall Plan during background briefings. The US, it would seem, is fond of comparing itself to successes from the past. Obama now would like to be a bit like Marshall.

He even announced concrete financial aid on Thursday. But the sums pales in comparison to the Marshall Plan: just $2 billion for Egypt and a few million for Tunisia.

Soaring Rhetoric

Still, Obama's rhetoric was at least as soaring as that of his predecessor. "Politics alone has not put protesters into the streets. The tipping point for so many people is the more constant concern of putting food on the table and providing for a family," he said. "The greatest untapped resource in the Middle East and North Africa is the talent of its people."

With the help of America, that is now to change. But no matter how much he would like to, Obama is unable to present a Marshall Plan for the Arab world. That isn't a consequence of the paltry sums of money or a lack of rhetorical effort.

It is a consequence of the decidedly unambitious goals he set forth.

Back in 1947, America knew exactly what it wanted. Marshall said that the consequences of a non-functioning economy in Europe for the United States were "apparent to all." Europe should become strong once again, so that America would remain strong. That's why Marshall's plan was effective even without much fanfare.

But what exactly does the US want in the Middle East today? Even Obama had to think long and hard about that question. His speech came months after the beginning of the Arab Spring.

Which Side Is America On?

The president tried to conceal his uncertainty with grand rhetoric. He spoke of an "historic opportunity" for change in the region, especially after the death of the "mass murderer" Osama bin Laden. The US president celebrated the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi as a freedom fighter who sparked the protest movement with his self-immolation in December 2010, comparing him to American civil rights icons like Rosa Parks, who famously refused to give up her seat on a bus. "We have embraced the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator," Obama said.

But is America finally on the right side? It all depends on where you look. In Egypt, Washington no longer wanted dictator Hosni Mubarak in power, but it doesn't want to see the Muslim Brotherhood in government, either. In Syria, it would like to see Bashar Assad go and has already frozen the Syrian president's assets in the US. But Obama did not directly call for regime change in his speech. Similarly, Washington clearly wants to see Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi finally toppled, but it is unwilling to send in ground forces to achieve that aim.

Addressing America's allies in the region, Obama said: "Our message is simple: If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States." But he also said that the US would keep its "commitments to friends and partners."

In other words, Bahrain's rulers can continue with their harsh crackdown on protests -- after all, the US Fifth Fleet is anchored there. Jordan's autocratic King Abdullah had to listen to a few words of admonition during his visit to Washington on Tuesday, but he also left the White House with the promise of a billion-dollar loan guarantee. And, in his speech, Obama did not even mention Saudi Arabia -- an autocratic regime that also happens to be one of the world's largest oil producers.

Lose-Lose Issue

He has also been neglecting the Mideast peace process. As a presidential candidate, Obama described the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians as a "constant sore," and he made it the central focus of his Cairo speech in 2009. Since then, though, there has been no movement. On top of that, Obama's Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, just stepped down.

"A lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples," Obama is now saying. He is calling for a solution based on the borders established before the Six Day War in 1967, after which Israel annexed the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. His statement astounded diplomats. Still, the president avoided using any clear words about a new Middle East initiative.

It's a lose-lose issue for Obama. If he is too aggressive in his dealings with the Israelis, he will anger loyal Jewish voters at home whose support he will need for re-election in 2012. At the same time, if he shies away from a tougher approach, he will also weaken his intention of creating a Marshall Plan for the Arab world.

Back when Washington implemented the Marshall Plan to rebuild the European continent, Europe knew that America needed it. Today, though, many Arabs see the US more as a country that shares responsibility for the suffering they have experienced under dictatorships in recent decades than as any kind of liberator. Many despots in the region even received financial aid from Washington. For many of those who suffered under those regimes, America's help is no longer important. "The Arab Spring will happen with or without the US," is arguably the region's new maxim.

Divided Washington

Still, Obama can't simply issue an apology for his country's past policies in the region. If he did, he would come under strong criticism at home, with some accusing him of not believing in America's primacy in the world. That, perhaps, is the most important historical difference: At the time of the Marshall Plan, Washington was also divided. The Democrats were in the White House and the Republicans controlled Congress. Nevertheless, the parties were able to reach an agreement on foreign policy.

In today's Washington, even when America's interests are at stake, politicians don't seem capable of moving in lockstep. The House of Representatives -- currently controlled by a Republican Party that, in light of the massive budget deficit, is obsessed with savings measures -- doesn't want to provide any more money, so the White House will have to make do with $2 billion.

Right after Obama's speech, right-wing news channel Fox News blasted the words "Obama Shocker." His demands on Israel were simply too radical, it said. Indeed, Obama may be able to act the part of the marshal, but he doesn't have much by way of a plan.

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