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Obama aims for the right side of history

By Khaled Fahmy, Special to CNN
  • Khaled Fahmy: Obama's speech explained how pursuit of human rights exists with U.S. interests
  • Fahmy says Obama clear on 1967 lines being baseline for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations
  • Fahmy: But he left out U.S. ties to repressive Saudi Arabia, role of oil, apology to Arabs
  • Fahmy says he's ceding initiative to Arab people, trying at least to be on right side of history

Editor's note: Khaled Fahmy is the chairman of the history department at American University in Cairo.

(CNN) -- On Thursday, President Obama succeeded in presenting a clear policy about how to deal with the tumultuous events sweeping the Arab World -- this after months in which his administration seemed to be misinformed or divided (or both) about how to deal with these events.

Repeatedly, he strove to convince his listeners that there was a way to square the pursuit of American interests with the necessity of upholding universal rights. "We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator," he said.

With regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, he acknowledged that the baseline for any permanent agreement should be the 1967 lines and not defensible borders. When calling for the resumption of negotiations between the two sides, he made it clear that these negotiations should start from security and borders and should not for the moment include the "core issues" of refugees and Jerusalem.

And when envisaging the shape of the future Palestinian state, he made it clear that such a state should have common borders with Jordan, in a clear challenge to Israel's insistence on maintaining a long-term presence in the Jordan Valley.

What the speech left out was significant.

Conspicuously absent was any discussion of oil. It was as if securing a steady and cheap supply of oil has not been a major principle shaping U.S. policy toward the region for the past 60 years. And while Yemen and Bahrain were singled out for reprimand for how they suppressed their pro-democracy movements, Saudi Arabia, another "friend" of the U.S. and arguably the greatest authoritarian regime in the entire region, got off without the slightest mention.

Equally significant by its absence was any explicit acknowledgement of, let alone apology for, the long-term U.S. policy of propping up oppressive regimes and of privileging stability over democracy and human rights.

Above all, however, the speech was most remarkable in its tone. In contrast to his rousing speech in Cairo two years ago, this was a much more subdued one. Realizing that "it's not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo, [but that] it was the people themselves who launched these movements," the president wisely cautioned that "we must proceed with a sense of humility."

This was a polite and eloquent way to respond to the widespread criticism that the U.S. was slow to respond to the momentous changes sweeping over the Arab World.

Throughout the speech, one could not avoid the feeling that the president is acutely aware of the waning of U.S. power and that having lost the initiative to the Arab people, the best the U.S. could do was to strive simply to be on the right side of history.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Khaled Fahmy.