Opinion: Expectations for Obama Speech

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Author’s note: this was written very quickly, so I’d love to hear your thoughts.

President Obama is scheduled to speak tomorrow from the State Department about the Middle East. This comes a day after the White House slapped sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and a day before a visit from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It will be interesting to compare this speech to the on he gave in Cairo on June 4th, 2009. See below if you want refresher:

I am not optimistic that the President will lay out a coherent Middle East plan for two reasons. One, nobody really knows what is going to happen in the region, making it very difficult to form any sort of long term vision. Two, it is not in America’s interest to make specific statements that might cause us to eat their words later. Much of the diplomacy is being done behind closed doors, and varies from country-to-country.

That said, here are my thoughts on the upcoming speech. I have left out specifics, because I don’t think we will realistically hear many. My guess is that Obama will speak very diplomatically, so that will be my tone as well.

First, this address should be aimed more at the Arab people than Americans. This needs to serve as a guide to Arab and Israeli leaders, more than domestic politicians.

Second, this is a chance for the administration to finally explain their policy to date, and what should generally be expected going forward. The lack of transparency has been frustrating to say the least.

For Arabs:
Take home message: “we are here to support your desires, but not interfere.”

Obama should, and I believe will, reiterate in the strongest words possible America’s unwillingness to accept violence and our unwavering support for freedom of expression. Yes, this would be an ironic statement given that we are engaged in a war in Iraq and NATO bombings in Libya, but it needs to be said.

The President should avoid directly responding to criticisms of American instigation or interference, but he needs to make it very clear that the uprisings are and will continue to be 100% Arab. It may be impossible, but he needs to try and convince skeptics of American intentions that our goals of freedom and democracy are mutual, but will not be imposed. We are not waiting on the wings to power grab, but will continue to support the desires of the Arab people.

It is reasonable to express American concerns over the potential rise in terrorist activity, sectarian violence and extremism. But it needs to be accompanied by a statement recognizing that ‘the vast majority of Arabs’ share our desire for peace and stability and that will all work together towards these ends.

For Americans:
Take home message: “we are doing everything we can given a difficult and complicated situation. We will do what we can to support liberal democracies without harming (and hopefully promoting) American interests.”

I think it is critical for Obama to address mistakes that have been made over the last few months. America, like everyone else, was caught of guard by the speed at which has taken place. It is very obvious that it took us awhile to catch up, and we need to admit that. He should then give us some sense of how policy decisions are being made and who is involved.

He then needs to dismiss the comparisons being made between policies in different Arab countries. This is not to say that America should not be held to certain standards, but many of the comparisons being made are uninformed. Just because we went into Libya, doesn’t mean we can do it everywhere else. Each country has a unique set of circumstances, and must be dealt with on a case-to-case basis.

This is why you see different levels of engagement in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, etc. The fact that America occasionally ‘leads from behind’ should not be seen as a sign of wavering support, but as a calculated attempt to do balance the interests of all parties, and avoid aggravating tensions or violence.

It is unfortunate that Americans are constantly bombarded with news of violence, sectarian tensions and other strife. I find much of it to be exaggerated. Obama should remind the nation of the immense potential for positive change that the Arab spring could bring.

It would great to hear remarks on Syria and the Arab-Israeli conflict. I would include Yemen as well, but I don’t know what we can do publicly. Behind the scenes diplomacy or covert military operations are probably our best shot. In terms of Libya, I do not know enough to make any sort of policy predictions, but feel free to comment on the subject.

I do not think that Obama should call for Assad’s resignation quite yet for a few reasons. First, it would leave us with even less leverage than before. Our next move would be freezing assets and moving into a Libya type situation against an even stronger regime. Another worry is that American citizens in Syria will be targeted or more likely, the diplomatic channels necessary to facilitate a peaceful transition will be closed. Last, any statement would be similar to the one that we made about President Saleh in Yemen, and we’ve seen where that’s led. Saleh and the opposition are deadlocked in a stalemate that has no peaceful end in sight. To depose Assad it will take a united front willing to use force (hopefully it won’t come to that). I’m not sure America is willing to enter yet another conflict in the Middle East.

However, the announcement should be made in the near future, if the current sanctions do not produce results (which they probably won’t). The move will be largely symbolic, but might be necessary to stop the bloodshed, and could lead other more influential countries (the EU and Turkey) to follow suite. Since the Senate has introduced a resolution declaring his power illegitimate, returning to normal relations seems unlikely. It is pretty clear that American relations with Assad are irreparably damaged.

There have been many developments in the Arab-Israeli conflict, most notably the signing of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas. A new Palestinian government could adopt a political stance that lies somewhere in between the ideologies of Fatah and Hamas, but at least there will be one voice at the negotiating table. However, it is way to soon to pass public judgment. Instead, we should reaffirm our commitment to a two state solution, and continue our efforts to facilitate a peace treaty. Although this wouldn’t signal a change in policy, it is important to reassure Israel of their safety and recognize the recent struggles for freedom in Palestine.

Update: speech will offer economic support for reformers. Good move, but with risks. Maybe we should wait to forgive Egyptian debt until a legitimate government is in power. Also, it’s hard to ‘modernize [your] economy’ when it is essentially non-existent like in Yemen and Libya or severely crippled like in Bahrain and Syria. Egypt could be a place to test this an economic development plan, but we are getting ahead of ourselves in other places..

Written by Tik Root a junior at Middlebury College

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

One Response to Opinion: Expectations for Obama Speech

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

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