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Obama's Middle East Speech: Historic Opportunity, Uncomfortable Truths Obama's Middle East Speech: Historic Opportunity, Uncomfortable Truths

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Obama's Middle East Speech: Historic Opportunity, Uncomfortable Truths

Obama's speech did not quite promise a new Marshall Plan.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

photo of James Kitfield
May 19, 2011

President Obama's Middle East Speech 5/20/11

Perhaps it was inevitable that the “fall of the Berlin Wall” moment for the messy Middle East has created so many agonizing choices for America. Certainly in trying to get on the right side of the historic change sweeping through the region, President Obama in his speech on Thursday spoke uncomfortable truths to multiple audiences.

(RELATED: Text of Obama's Speech)


To nascent democracies in Tunisia and Egypt, Obama reached out the hand of economic aid, but in these tight-fisted times it held much less than the Middle East “Marshall Plan” those countries had hoped for. Bloody-handed autocrats in Libya, Yemen, and Syria were essentially told that the days of their rule are numbered, even as battered protesters in those countries were left to wonder what the United States might do to hasten the end of their suffering. Friends were treated to criticism in the case of Bahrain and damning silence in the case of Saudi Arabia. Closer to home, war- and recession-weary Americans were told of a new $2 billion jobs and economic development program – for the Middle East.

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The most inconvenient truth of all, however, was reserved for the U.S.'s closest ally in the region. For the first time, Israel heard from an American president that its decades-long occupation of Palestinian territory has become unsustainable, and that Washington’s vision of a two-state solution is based generally on 1967 borders, with a full withdrawal of Israeli military forces from a sovereign, demilitarized Palestine.

Though it contained difficult medicine, President Obama’s speech on the Middle East sought to fundamentally reorient U.S. foreign policy in the region in a more hopeful direction: the death of Osama bin Laden and discrediting of al-Qaida’s vision of a fundamentalist Islamist caliphate; the nearly complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from a fledgling democratic Iraq; and especially the pro-democratic uprisings of the “Arab Spring,” which have created an opportunity, he said, to align U.S. ideals and core interests.

“So we face a historic opportunity,” said Obama, speaking from the State Department. “There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity. Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise. But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.”

(PICTURES: Obama Delivers Key Mideast Speech)

The elevation of democratic reforms and transitions to the “top priority” of U.S. foreign policy in the region carries significant costs and risks. The $2 billion in debt relief and loan guarantees Obama offered to Egypt, for instance, is likely to prove only a down payment on the total aid and support required to help the largest Arab country and Mideast bellwether in its difficult transition to democracy.

“The Egyptian officials I talk to say the scale of the assistance needed just to see them through next summer is roughly $12 billion, so they worry that the Obama aid package is both too small and too focused on longer-term projects to address their immediate problems,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

(RELATED: President Calls for Peace Plan Based on 1967 Borders)

If supporting democratic movements and reforms is a top priority and core U.S. interest, then the Obama administration will continue to face pressure to act aggressively in advancing that cause, militarily if need be, especially in adversarial countries such as Libya, Syria, and Iran. However, if Washington mutes its criticism when friendly countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq brutally suppress democratic protest movements, as they recently have, it will be open to familiar charges of hypocrisy and double standards.

“It has always been a challenge for the United States to find the right balance between its values and principles and national security interests in the Middle East, and I give President Obama credit for trying to explain that to the American people and a global audience, so they understand why we react differently to democratic uprisings and movements in different countries,” said Edward Djerejian, director of the James Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University and a former ambassador to Israel. “I also agree with Obama that now is the time for Israeli and Palestinian officials to show political will and courage, because it’s becoming increasingly clear that the popular uprisings in the Arab world will manifest themselves in protests against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.”

Indeed, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu due at the White House on Friday, and set to give an important speech before a joint session of Congress next week, perhaps the largest question raised by Obama’s speech and foreign policy reorientation is how it will impact U.S.-Israel relations.

Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, suggested that the speech may not be well received in Israel.

“President Obama made news by endorsing the idea that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should begin first on the issues of territory and security, leaving the issues of Jerusalem and refugee returns for later; by stating publicly for the first time that the United States believes the final border between Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed upon swaps of territory; and by calling for a full withdrawal of Israeli Defense Forces from a future state of Palestine,” Satloff said. “Those are departures from longstanding U.S. policy that have to be seen as a move towards the Palestinian position. I imagine Prime Minister Netanyahu will ask why an American president is moving towards Palestinian demands at a time when the Palestinians are moving further away from peacemaking.”

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