Obama’s Middle East Policy Speech

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Part I: By Andrew Lieber

How you decide to view Obama’s speech will inevitably depend on the expectations you went into it with. If you expected to hear him upend decades of relative continuity in US Policy towards the Arabic world as a whole, well then you’re unlikely to come away feeling you got your moneys’ worth. If, on the other hand, the speech was routine enough to avoid watching (especially if you follow news of the Middle East when CNN isn’t blasting it 24/7) then you might have been a bit surprised, or possibly bemused. Let’s take a look.

The major thing to come out of this speech was Obama’s explicit endorsement of the pre-1967 borders for a 2-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Predictably, this sparked an immediate outcry from Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet in Israel, who as of late have been unwilling to compromise on the issue of settlements deep within Palestinian territories, which would either have to be removed under a return to the 1967 borders or else compensated for by granting Palestine some equal stretch of land from within Irrael’s border. This is certainly significant – the first time a sitting President as used the pre-1967 borders as a direct guideline for peace negotiations. A vague sense of a 2-state solution has always hovered around the United States’ approach towards the conflict, but this at least puts a line in the sand as to where those states would take place.

Sadly, the rest of Obama’s points on the Middle East were all too predictable. When it came to outlining the conflict, we hear of the Israeli’s fear of losing their children to rocket fire or terrorist attacks, while Palestinians suffer under the “humiliation of occupation”. Specific suffering on the Palestinian side makes no appearance. To be honest, I almost thought President Obama was going to make an incredibly radical statement when he mentioned “tearing down walls that stand in the way of progress” – only to find that these were the walls of bureaucratic red tape, not the imposing structures that ring the small enclaves of Palestine that exist within Israeli-controlled land.

A few sections left me at a loss. When speaking of the failures of negotiations, we hear that ” Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks.” There is, of course, no indication that a major reason for Palestinians walking away from talks this past fall was the refusal of Netanyahu’s government to compromise on the issue of settlement construction. As far as I know, the United States has not changed its long-standing veto on and UN resolutions to condemn the construction of said settlements, despite its rhetoric to the contrary. In fact, Obama belittled the efforts of Palestinian leaders to go around the US and Israeli-dominated approach the the MidEast crisis in the UN:

“For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.”

Yet the issue is not Israel’s right to exist. Why would the efforts at the UN even be included in this collection of grievances? Furthermore, what does Obama mean by looking towards the creation of Palestine as a “sovereign, non-militarized state”? He could be simply hoping for a state where everybody is not armed to the gills, but if “every state has a right to defend itself”, then it will be interesting to see how Palestine as a sovereign state fits into this framework.

Yet despite all of this, I am willing to cut President Obama some slack given where he is speaking from. As a fair evaluation of the conflict, the speech is certainly wanting. As a major statement from the President of the United States, a position that has been consistently pro-Israel for longer than Obama has walked the face of this earth, it still marks a departure from the usual, 100% backing Israel has come to expect from the United States. In an indication of what general views are like on the other side of the aisle, even the suggestion that the pre-1967 borders should be adhered to was likened to “throwing Israel under a bus” by former Gov. Mitt Romney, among others. As with everything, Obama’s remarks provide at least some chance of hope, but they will have to be backed by deeds rather than more words for them to gain much credence in the eyes of Palestinians and the Arab world as a whole. As shown by recent demonstrations, pro-Palestinian sentiment is growing in the Arab world, and not all of it can be explained away as Hamas-, Syria- and Iran-backed scaremongering.

Of course, this wasn’t the sole focus of the speech. If any population was “thrown under the bus”, it was likely the protesters in Bahrain, despite the NYTime’s characterization of the island kingdom’s treatment as “blunt” (actually one of its more favored descriptors for Obama in this speech). The Iranian threat was rolled out here, with the Bahraini government’s “legitimate interest in the rule of law” as justification for the harsh crackdown that the United States stayed mostly silent about. No mention, of course, of the Saudi Arabian role in events, and the tanks and soldiers that rolled into Bahrain in order to clamp down on the dissenting population. Yet that would have entailed polite criticism of yet another erstwhile ally, and so was unlikely to be politically expedient. We can only hope, as President Obama does, that the Bahraini government will come to its senses and invite the opposition to sit down and talk. Iran itself, we were reminded, was the first country in the region to experience a democratic revolution, though hopefully the stalled process of change will get going again soon. We can only hope.

The speech understandably danced around the “changing the regime without regime change” situation in Libya. President Obama directly attacked President Assad of Syria, telling him that he must join in reforming the country or “get out of the way”. Exactly how the United States would accomplish that is unclear, but it helps maintain the internal consistency of the speech and goes to the “universal values” the United States will be able to help foment in the region in upcoming years. The United States will also offer to forgive up to $1 billion in Egyptian debt, while potentially offering up to $1 billion in investment money for further development in Egypt. Hopefully US non-military loan structuring will have come a long way from the Cold War funding fiasco that was the Aswan High Dam loan, or the sheer corruption that plagues USAID during the Mubarak years, but it remains to be seen.

At this point, I feel like I’ll probably leave off the analysis. I don’t mean to present an overly pessimistic view of the speech, just a cautious one – check the NYTimes lead story for a more uplifting portrayal. Yet ultimately, what will determine the success of Obama’s policies towards the Middle East (not to mention the rest of the US Government) is how it impacts the people of the region – not how often or how eloquently we in America tell ourselves that we are acting on the side of good. Talk the speech over with friends, especially if you know anybody from the region or anybody who might have a different take on things (when I watched the speech, our audience of4 was evenly split into people of US, Pakistani, Iranian and Egyptian origin). It’ll be interesting to see where things go next. That much is true.

Part IIBy Tik Root

The majority of Obama’s speech was just what I thought it might be; diplomatic rhetoric. At this stage in the game that is about all he can do, but I am doubtful that the US will be able to follow through with concrete positive support.  Even if the administration comes up with actionable plans, enormous political hurdles, both in the region and domestically, block the road to implementation. For example, Obama will have to contend with the likes of U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who issued this statement after the speech.

Although there were many issues in the speech worth addressing, I’m short on time so I’ll only look at two of them: Obama’s call to Assad and his aid to Egypt.

Despite critics who wanted Obama to call for Assad’s departure, I thought the President made the right decision. No one actually expects Assad to lead democratic reform, because doing so would almost certainly result in his minority ruling party being ousted in a free and fair election. So Obama’s ultimatum was much more weighted to “get out the way.”By not making the call explicitly, Obama left himself with at least a bit of political leverage. However, my guess is that it is only a matter of time before Obama is forced to play all of his diplomatic cards, and then some. The President better be ready to fully back up his words, because Assad won’t go down without a fight.

About the only thing that Rep. Ros-Lehtinen and I agree on is that Obama should have held off on economic aid to Egypt until the new government is formed, although for very different reasons. Rep. Ros-Lehtinen says that we shouldn’t give aid to Egypt unless it “will not include the Muslim Brotherhood, and will be democratic, [and] pro-American.” The ignorance in that statement is astounding.

First, it goes against everything the President said about self-determination. If the Egyptian people want the Muslim Brotherhood to be part of the new government, they have that right. Yes, the group is Islamic, but is squarely against non-violence and Al Qaeda actually despises for that very reason. Furthermore, if you look Article 5 in the Egyptian constitution, it states that political parties cannot be based on religion. In reality that probably won’t end up being the case, but just look at the religious lobbies in the US. It is hard to argue that our politics are not [heavily] influenced by religion.

The reason that we should hold off on aid is that although the military council running Egypt is necessary, it is not a legitimate or permanent government. The military council has already shown a few signs of the old regime, and the last thing we need to do is give them one more reason, or tool, to hang on to power. Aid should be used as an incentive to conduct free and fair elections.

This entry was posted in Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Libya, Palestine, Syria, Yemen. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Obama’s Middle East Policy Speech

  1. Pingback: Weekly Roundup 5/21 | Mideast Reports

  2. Dave says:

    …i can join with others, in sympathy…when gambits hinging on old absolutes are intrinsic, if not obvious, to or concerning more qualified diplomatic gambits; i can also wait while realities/perceptions evolve to enble decisions beyond sympathy, in effect, as clearly intended….

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