President Obama and the “Arab Spring”

Last week, President Obama made his first major speech on the United States’ Middle East policy since the “Arab Spring” began back in January. While the speech focused on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the people-powered protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, Iraq did not escape notice.

As well it shouldn’t. In talking about the Arab Spring, the president noted:

Throughout the region, many young people have a solid education, but closed economies leave them unable to find a job. Entrepreneurs are brimming with ideas, but corruption leaves them unable to profit from them.

The lack of job opportunities and the proliferation of corruption are some of the grievances claimed by those Iraqis who have been pushed to protest in the streets in the preceding months. But Iraq is not Egypt or Tunisia. Protests there aren’t about overthrowing a despotic regime.

That’s because, as President Obama said in his speech, Iraqis have the promise of democracy:

In Iraq, we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy. There, the Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence for a democratic process, even as they have taken full responsibility for their own security. Like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress. As they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.

Being a steadfast partner is going to be important. The Center for American Progress writes, “As a general rule, the U.S. can do the most to usher in reform in places where it maintains robust economic, diplomatic, military and civil society ties.”

To that end, in fact sheets meant to accompany the speech, the State Department highlighted that its “assistance has helped Iraq combat corruption with programs for integrity institutions: the Board of Supreme Audit, the Commission on Integrity, and the Inspectors General.”

What will steadfast partnership look like? In the president’s own words:

We must also build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future – particularly young people.

Hopefully this means a dual-pronged engagement with both the Iraqi government and young people. Already young people are developing innovative ways to combat corruption. Did you have to pay a bribe to start a new business? Now there’s an app for that.

Pundits have called the speech light on solutions in a complex region. On his CNN blog, Fareed Zakaria writes:

In other words, it was a comprehensive, fair and balanced speech. But the most difficult aspect of this Arab revolution is not in understanding it right now – its causes are clear. The problem is it remains very much unfinished business.

But Zakaria says it’s not just the president’s words that matter:

Obama chose the right audience to give his speech, America’s Foreign Service. As Arabs struggle to make a break from the past and enter the modern world, they will judge America not by a speech but by the countless actions of American diplomats over the next few months and years.

In Iraq, the United States will continue to be judged by its actions. As the president’s speech acknowledged the power of youth, it’s important that the United States work with them while they lay the foundations for the future in Iraq.