5 Things We Learned From Obama's Mid-East Speech

Thursday, May 19, 2011

President Obama Delivers Speech On Mideast And North Africa, May 19, 2011. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

President Obama's speech on Middle East and North African policy at the State Department on Thursday wasn't earth-shattering. He tried to project consistency in the American approach to the domino-effect uprisings taking place all over the region. The President made an effort by using traditional metaphors insisting that the Arab spring is rooted in fundamental American values. Here are a few takeaways hidden in the pretty language:

1. "The Arab Spring" is as American as Apple Pie

President Obama firmly stationed the uprisings sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East as in the American interest. Citing the Boston Tea Party, the Civil War and Rosa Parks, the president made an effort to frame the narrative of change as familiar, non-threatening and welcome. "We have embraced the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator." Translation: On paper, we've been on your side all along. At the same time, the president acknowledged the gap between that ideal and the reality, and he used this opportunity to underline a shift that he began two years ago with his first speech directed at the region, in Cairo. "A failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and Muslim communities." Here the President presented his idea of a consistent approach: One that opposes violence repression and favors economic and political reform.

2. If countries transition to "democracy," they will be rewarded

The major announcement of the speech was that the U.S. will forgive $1 billion in Egypt's debt and will offer the country another $1 billion in borrowing to be used for economic growth. The president outlined a number of economic investment programs for Tunisia and Egypt. It's not about aid, it's about trade: "We think it's important to focus on trade, not just aid; and investment, not just assistance."

3. A few points on Israel and Palestine

U.S. policy is never crystal clear, ever, regarding this issue, but the President made a few point in advance of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit Friday. First off, it's not the burden of the U.S. to fix it: "Ultimately, it is up to Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them, nor can endless delay make the problem go away." Secondly, Obama supports two states divided along 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps--which means he expects concessions from Israel. He even used the word "occupation." On the other hand, the U.S. will not support Palestine at the U.N. in September when it lobbies to be recognized as an independent state (though the U.S. does support a two-state solution). And Obama was clear that the U.S. will not deal with Hamas unless it stops questioning Israel's right to exist.

4. Regional round-up

The U.S. will take a hard line on Syria: "The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way." This was not a call for resignation, but it was a threat. Obama was much softer on Bahrain, saying the U.S. was committed to the country's security, but the government should release opponents from jail and engage in a dialogue. Obama spent only one line on Yemen--President Saleh must transfer power. Unsurprisingly Obama was critical of Iran and Libya. Egypt and Tunisia got kudos and the President was optimistic about Iraq. For Israel and Palestine see #3.

5. Anti-terrorism is no longer the focus of American action in the region

The speech was notable for how little President Obama talked about the threat of terrorism, and that is indicative of the President's new regional narrative. The assassination of Osama bin Laden was mentioned of course, but it played second fiddle to the Arab spring. "By the time we found bin Laden, al Qaeda's agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands."


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Comments [4]

Sam Goldring from NYC

In 1929 the experienced Dutch-American
journalist, Pierre van Paassen,interviewed Ai Hameen el Husseini,the Mufti of Jerusalem. The interview can be found in "Days Of Our Years" this book was so well received --it was reprinted 21 times between 1939-1943 ! Read chapter 8 parts 5 -7. The reader will gain some insight into the tragic Arab / Israel conflict.
Democracy is pretty when the rule of the majority is informed by and expresses kindness. But if children are taught to hate the "other",than a mobocracy rules. It is better to be ruled by a kind king than by a cruel mob.

May. 20 2011 02:39 AM

President Obama included a vision for the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan in his speech today on the Middle-East and North Africa. So as with many modern Presidents before him, he is seeking an American supported effort to bring peace to the single conflict in the Middle-East that either foments or is used as an excuse for six decades of conflicts between Israel and neighboring Arab states.
I admire the hopeful persistence that American presidents show toward this endeavor. Certainly there is nothing unworthy about attempting to bring peace anywhere, and particularly in this region that has suffered from pointless violence founded upon a poorly conceived and implemented concept of creating a Jewish homeland. But my dissatisfaction with yet another vision is that it is not actually a plan. It jumps straight to the solution without bothering to dealing with foolish things like a process and methodology to handle the obstacles that already exist or that will surface from where we are today to where the ‘vision’ has everyone at the end.
This vision will likely suffer the same fate as previous attempts. The peace process will either collapse after a in a new round of attacks and counter-attacks, or it will conclude with some minor and unfulfilling accord without definitive consequence. The failure inherent in these approaches is that they are conceived and attempted by politicians, power-brokers and religious die-hards; sometimes embodied in the same person. While such individuals are necessary and critical to the success of any peace process, nothing about their positions or authority bestows on them the wits, wisdom or willingness to seek innovative, inspired and insightful approaches to transitioning from their current state of hostility to a peaceful and harmonious coexistence.
The plan that the Israeli and Palestinians need is one which will move them incrementally through the steps and stages that are necessary to provide the time to identify not only the major issues that will require a resolution but the more numerous small and minor issues that will be cumulatively more important than the stumbling blocks that have prevented progress in the past. Additionally, the two principle parties will also need to comprehend why they need to take incremental steps to get to their final goal. It is a reasoned and rational methodology that have evaded past efforts. And it is deficiency that is and has been missing from the peace process toolkit. Processes directed and driven by the mighty and powerful players at the negotiating table are vulnerable to their greatest shortcoming, engaging in a game in which they do not know or understand the rules. Playing at the peace process is not an ideal strategy for something deserving of at least a half-hearted attempt at actually trying to succeed.

find the rest at

May. 19 2011 08:41 PM
Rod Cannon from Atlanta, Ga.

Who are the We in We believe the borders of Israel should go back to pre 1967 Obama? Maybe the borders of the USA and Mexico will go back to 1845 next? I think you've lost you mind. Leave Me out of the We!

May. 19 2011 06:20 PM
Rod Cannon from Atlanta, Ga.

Who are the We in We believe the borders of Israel should go back to pre 1967 Obama? Maybe the borders of the USA and Mexico will go back to 1845 next? I think you've lost you mind. Leave Me out of the We!

May. 19 2011 06:19 PM

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