Deeds, not words

President Barack Obama answers a question as he returns to the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

A rough translation to English of lyrics to a popular Arabic song goes something like this: “When I hear your words I am fascinated, When I see your actions I am flabbergasted.”

These are the sentiments of many people in this part of the world on the occasion of Tuesday’s speech by President Barack Obama before the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

They might also apply to past addresses there by Obama’s predecessors George Bush, Bill Clinton, and other presidents over the past several decades.

The verbal prowess might differ, but the content is usually the same. People often hear positive, upbeat and principled rhetoric, the kind that used to give hope to the Palestinian people, or the wider Arab world.

While people in this region might have been genuinely impressed with the content of some of these speeches in the past, the audience these days has become considerably more cynical, and with good reason.

In order to realize any of the lofty goals laid out in such addresses, several things are required: political will, the tools to succeed and a feasible time frame.

In order to address the Palestinian issue, for example, one must be intensively engaged, and prepared to spend political capital in order to reap long-term benefits.

But this isn’t the case today. In his last major foreign policy address before the November election, Obama reminded people in Lebanon of their own country’s official policy of “disassociation,” to avoid the repercussions of the crisis in next-door Syria.

In addressing a number of key issues, Obama sorely needed to set down a road map for implementation – otherwise, his appearance on the world stage was a useful lesson in speechmaking, but not in politics.

In fact, the speech was an exercise in repetition, but with unintended irony.

In the past he has supported worthy efforts, such as a peaceful resolution of the Palestine issue, or better relations with the Muslim world – these goals were tackled during his speech at the U.N. last year, and at the outset of his term, during his famous speech in Cairo. But ironically, conditions back then were more conducive to achieving progress than they are today.

Obama might feel obliged to hold forth on the burning issues of the day, such as Palestine, the Arab Spring, Syria and Iran. However, he merely appeased the usual suspects – the American public and Israel – while failing to offer anything new.

When a politician who enjoys the stature and resources that Obama does makes a decision to talk about the burning issues of the day, he should be prepared to make an effort to put out the fire. Otherwise, the difference between words and actions will lose him more and more of the audience.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 26, 2012, on page 7.




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