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Obama’s Middle East Speech: in Search of Balance

May 23, 2011

Originally published in Aspenia Online of the Aspen Institute Italia

Nearly two years after he addressed the Muslim world in Cairo, and almost six months after uprisings began to sweep across the Middle East and North Africa, President Barack Obama took stock of the United States’ changing role in the region in a highly anticipated speech on May 19.

In his address, the President pushed all parties, America’s friends and foes alike, to embrace the demands of the people and embark on a new era of democratic transition and economic modernization. He insisted that Israelis and Palestinians take advantage of this historic turning point to return to the negotiating table and find a sensible, long-lasting solution to their decade-old conflict. Although President Obama’ speech offered little in terms of specifics, his embrace of the 1967 border as the basis of any peace agreement triggered criticism from the Republicans. Finally, acknowledging the changes that have taken place in the region and across the world since his 2009 Cairo speech, the President also recognized the US cannot unilaterally impose its will. “It’s not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo,” he said. “It was the people themselves who launched these movements, and it’s the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome.”

Obama threw the full weight of the US behind the democratic demands of protesters, praising the courage of those who have been taking to the streets linking the struggle for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa with the American Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement. “The United States of America was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves,” he said. “And now we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.”

In order to support the fledgling democracies of Tunisia and Egypt, which he hopes will become models for the region, and to prop up their depressed economies now bogged down by massive rates of unemployment, the President outlined an economic plan which, in coordination with European allies and international institutions, is supposed to deliver a combination of aid and foreign investments and to facilitate trade in this region of more than 400 million people. For Egypt, in particular, President Obama proposed about $1 billion in debt forgiveness and $1 billion in loan guarantees. The goal is to ensure that these countries’ political transitions don’t depart from what the US deems core democratic principles, such as respect for human rights and religious freedom. “Our message is simple:  If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States,” the President said.

While pledging US assistance to Tunisia and Egypt, President Obama did not shy away from the more troubling developments taking place in other parts of the region, condemning those leaders who, in order to cling to power, have responded to peaceful demonstrations by means of violent repression. He declared that Colonel Muammar Gheddafi’s days at the helm of Libya are counted; he pressured Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh to carry out the reforms he has promised but so far not delivered; and he denounced Syrian President Bashar Assad’s oppression of his people, announcing that the US government had stepped up sanctions on him and his entourage, but stopped short of asking for his ouster (“President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way,” President Obama said).

The President went so far as to criticize the government of Bahrain, a steadfast ally of the United States, but never mentioned the 100-pound gorilla in the room, Saudi Arabia. “To be honest, at times our friends in the region have not reacted to the demands for change in a way that is appropriate”, he only said.

In the final and more poignant part of the speech, President Obama discussed the Arab-Israeli conflict, whose resolution he had promised to make a priority as he took office in 2009 but on which no progress has been achieved to date. The President reiterated positions that he has held since the beginning, reaffirming America’s “unshakable commitment to Israel’s security,” but stressing that today’s status quo is not sustainable. “Israel must act boldly to achieve peace,” he said. “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.” He also raised questions about the newly crafted Fatah-Hamas agreement and recommended that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas not go forward with a planned unilateral declaration of statehood at the United Nations in September.

While the final details of an agreement must be left to the Israelis and the Palestinians, and while issues such as the fate of Jerusalem and the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees are bound to remain contentious and highly emotional, the President said that the basis of a deal is already clear: a lasting peace will require two states for two people, “a viable Palestine, a secure Israel”. The borders separating these two sovereign countries, President Obama added, should be based on the 1967 line and should allow for “mutually agreed swaps”. This is by no means a revolutionary proposition – the 1967 borders have been a widely accepted premise since the failed Camp David Accord – but by embracing it in an official address, President Obama has gone farther than any US president before him.

Although the speech contained little in terms of novelty, this particular statement was received critically in Washington’s conservative circles. For former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, “President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus.” Tim Pawlenty, former Governor of Minnesota, said, “President Obama’s insistence on a return to the 1967 borders is a mistaken and very dangerous demand.”. For House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, “by keeping the burden and thus the spotlight on Israel, the President is only giving the Palestinian Authority more incentive to carry on its unhelpful game of sidestepping negotiations and failing to put an end to terrorism.” It should be noted that Romney, Pawlenty and Cantor are presidential hopefuls.

Several observers found these reactions surprising. “I don’t understand where the shock comes from, to be shocked that the ‘67 lines are the starting point for negotiations is itself shocking in 2011,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, a Democratic-leaning Jewish American lobby, told Foreign Policy Magazine. For Ben-Ami, and others like him, it is clear to everybody that the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict will be based on the 1967 borders, adjusted in a way that reflects changes on the ground that took place in the last decades, especially as it pertains to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In fact, a series of Jewish-American organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, issued statements commending the President’s speech.

The reaction of Republican members of Congress and the crop of candidates running in the 2012 GOP primary is a reminder of how partisan the US political debate has become.

Speaking to the Muslim world in June 2009, President Obama had tried to mend a relationship plagued by decades of mutual distrust. Because of the historical context of the time, he had dedicated much of his address from Cairo to discussing issues such as the fight against Islamic terrorism and al Qaeda, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Much has changed since then. The US has withdrawn combat troops from Iraq (the rest are to leave by the end of this year) and will start pulling soldiers out of Afghanistan this summer. And, of course, on May 1st US Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden, at a time when, by President Obama’s own admission, “al Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life.” In his speech Thursday, the President touched briefly on these issues to suggest that they are becoming things of the past and that it is time to turn a new page in US relationships with the Muslim world and in American foreign policy in general.

As Marta Dassù recently wrote on the Centre for European Policy Studies website, developments in the Middle East and North Africa, combined with the disengagement of the American military from Iraq and Afghanistan, may slowly allow the US to pull political resources away from the Greater Middle East and put them into other crucial regions, the Greater Orient with China at its center. The President’s acknowledgment that, in the Middle East and North Africa, the US can no longer rule, but must instead follow the lead of the people, is already an indication of changes to come. In all likelihood, however, this will take time: the great complexities and challenges coming from the region will remain a primary concern for the US for years to come.

Remarks by President Barack Obama on the Middle East and North Africa, Washington, D.C., May 19, 2011

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