Barack Obama made a speech on the Middle East on Thursday of last week.
He promised a big change in US foreign policy. Obama’s words allied him with the Arab revolts, and compared them to the American Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement.
To understand what he was doing you need to understand what he is.
Many people see him as a decent liberal who has lost his way—intelligent, eloquent, and better than George W Bush.
But Obama is the leader of US capitalism, the most important person in capitalism globally, and the commander in chief of the US empire.
His presidency campaign’s largest funders were from Wall Street. His economic appointments have also been from Wall Street. His foreign policy appointments have been militarists.
He has escalated war in Afghanistan, bombed Pakistan and destroyed any global agreement on climate change. He remains the preferred candidate of the US ruling class.
His election marked the moment when people in the US announced to each other that they were not racists. That’s important.
But he is pursuing a strategy for his class. And he is the best they have.
That explains his speech. The US government and corporations are in trouble in the Middle East.
For two generations they have backed dictators and Israel in order to control the oil. Washington’s first reaction to the revolts was to back the dictators.
Then it all went wrong, and now they are scrambling to catch up. They still want to control the oil. To do that, they have to control the people.
Moreover, the US is losing the war in Afghanistan, and unrest and hatred is growing in Pakistan. A simple defeat for the US empire is the most likely outcome in “Af-Pak”.
So they are switching the thrust of US policy. They want to be friends with the winners, pick the new presidents and befriend the “Arab street”. Hillary Clinton can’t do this. But maybe Obama can.
So in Libya they brought the uprising under control and legitimised US bombing in the Middle East. In Egypt they told the military to sack Hosni Mubarak—and now support the army against the popular movements.
Obama also positioned himself as “neutral” between Israel and Palestine. Nothing he said marked a reversal in US policy. But the way he said it outraged and frightened Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Obama told the world he had a bitter meeting with Netanyahu. He wanted the world to know.
US support for Israel has long made Arabs bitter. The balance of forces in the region is shifting against Israel.
This does not mean Washington is dumping
Tel Aviv, but it wants Arabs to see it as neutral.
Obama did not even mention Saudi Arabia—but the Saudi king will still be furious with the speech.
US policy on the ground will still favour the rich, the corporations, the police, army and torturers.
But Washington is caught in a contradiction. The US wants to stop Arab popular control of the oil, economy and foreign policy.
Its central problem now is not supporting the dictators, but supporting the ruling class after the dictators go. So their actions will contradict their words. Some actions will contradict other actions.
They have to both support and criticise repression or lose control. They dare not go too far. They dare not stand still. Obama is in a hard place.
Obama’s verbal shift will have resonance with many politicians. Some ordinary Arabs will hope that Obama represents a change.
They probably won’t get away with it. Partly because they are still tied to old alliances and machineries of repression. Partly because Arabs are not stupid. Partly because after the dictators go, unemployment, hunger and injustice remain. But mainly because the revolts and the class struggle are still moving our way.
This is the most important thing to take away from Obama’s speech. It shows that Obama, Clinton and the state department think that the uprisings in Yemen and Syria will win. And spread.