The President’s Big Middle East Speech

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on May 19, 2011

The speech can be found here. My reaction to it is here. I should note that previous administrations have held the unofficial position that a Palestinian state should have its contours based on pre-1967 borders, but it was not until today that this expectation became official American policy. I didn’t have a problem with the expectation being an unofficial stance, because while it helped give the American position some definition, it also still allowed the Arabs and the Israelis leeway to come to a different agreement if the situation required, without causing observers to claim that any different agreement would fail to meet official American policy demands.

More on this issue from Kori Schake, who seeks to confirm my belief that there was no real substance to the President’s speech:

The president laid claim to “a new chapter in American diplomacy,” which he described as “shifting our foreign policy after a decade of war.” But the vision he now endorses for the universality of American values has actually been the basis for our foreign policy in the Middle East for several administrations, most stridently that of his immediate predecessor — it was President Obama’s policies that had sought to tone down the emphasis our values in order to work more constructively with the repressive governments of Iran and Syria, as well as the repressive governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

He said of democracy’s advance that “change will not be denied.” But isn’t it being denied in Bahrain, in Syria, in Yemen, in Iran? The president said yes, but didn’t explain why our policies are different toward those governments. Instead, he continued to promote the sophistry that there is no conflict between our values and our interests. Can anyone tell what our policy toward Saudi Arabia will be as the result of the president’s speech? I doubt it.

Obama said our values must be a top priority and supported by all the tools of our power. Yet he was long on pedantry and short of concrete proposals. The policies he outlined fell far short of the standard he himself set. The whole of government approach he advocated sums up to: asking the World Bank to come up with a G-8 proposal for assistance to Tunisia and Egypt, relieving $1 billion in debt for Egypt and another billion in loans, vague promises of enterprise funds and facilitation of trade and incentives for reform and penalizing corruption — all without any specificity as to how we might achieve that. Debt relief is a good thing, and so is credit from the Export-Import Bank. But is this really all we have on offer for a top priority supported by all the tools of our power? His national security team should have provided him a much better developed program of policies in advance of a major speech.

Scheduling the speech on the eve of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s arrival further increased the degree of difficulty for the president, given the administration’s inability to make progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues. But President Obama argued that current circumstances make peace more urgent than ever, then proceeded to propose nothing new. He stood boldly for a viable Palestine and a secure Israel. How is this news?

What will Middle Easterners think of the president’s speech? Jon Alterman from CSIS put it best: “There’s not a huge amount of curiosity about what the president thinks.” President Obama’s speech today did nothing to change that.

I actually thought more of the President’s proposals for working to improve national economies in the Middle East, but point taken. Will Inboden, by contrast, thinks highly of the speech, but not for reasons that an Obamaphile would like:

President Obama delivered an excellent speech today. The outstanding question is whether his administration’s deeds will follow his eloquent words. Still, as overdue as it was, he at last placed the United States firmly on the side of freedom in the Middle East. Even as the “Arab Spring” has shown signs of faltering in recent weeks, President Obama’s remarks today have the potential to provide new support and momentum for the reformers of the region who are facing the challenges of disorderly transition in Egypt, setbacks in Bahrain, an impasse in Yemen, and sadistic violence in Syria.

Make no mistake about just how dramatic today’s speech is. In his remarks today, President Obama also found his “inner George W. Bush” — and effectively departed from the first 2 ½ years of his own administration’s foreign policy. Though not mentioned by name in the speech, the strategic logic of the Bush Doctrine loomed large. It was Bush who in a November 2003 address to the National Endowment for Democracy declared:

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe — because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo. Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results.

And today President Obama announced that “after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be … it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.”

At the end of the day, I really don’t think that this speech is going to do much to move the ball on the issue of the Middle East peace process.

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