Steve Coll on the Middle East

President Barack Obama delivers a speech on Mideast and North Africa policy in the Ben Franklin Room at the State Department May 19, 2011 in Washington, DC.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and contributor to the New Yorker, reacted to President Obama's speech and discusses the Arab Spring and the U.S. reaction.

Bin Laden's fall and the Arab Spring

Yesterday, President Obama used his speech on Middle East policy to close the chapter on the death of Osama bin Laden. In the midst of a speech that drew attention largely for the demands made on Israel and Palestine, Obama attempted to persuade the rest of the Muslim world that bin Laden's ideology should die with him.

Steve Coll called it a smart move to connect that event with the Arab Spring that's bubbled up during the past six months, with radical Islam and oppressive regimes facing new challenges left and right. 

I do think the U.S. has an opportunity this year and in this flowering of political debate in the Muslim world to continuously make the sort of observation the president made yesterday: Osama lost the war of ideas—that doesn't mean the U.S. won, but as Arab societies redefine politics, there's an opportunity for a generation that's rising, the Facebook generation, to break away from old radicalisms, both Islamic and secular, and construct something new.

Walking the walk?

Coll also said that Muslim audiences bring an innate skepticism to speeches made by any president of the United States. For Muslims, Coll said, the Thursday speech was rife with omissions and contradictions that were sure to prick ears.

They're very attentive to inconsistencies; that's what their radar is most acutely tuned to. They know the U.S. has accommodated despots out of self interests, security interests, and energy interests for half a century or more in the Middle East. Even when an appealing president speaks about universal values, audiences abroad listen and say, 'Yes, I agree about your framing of rights, but now let's go to the case studies.'

When, as yesterday, the president goes country to country and tries to rationalize the accommodation of Bahrain's repression, leaves Saudi Arabia out altogether, then celebrates the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, you can bet people noticed that.

Bringing Hamas to the table

The words "1967 borders" do not sit well with Israelis, and now that a face-to-face with Benjamin Netanyahu is on the horizon all of a sudden, it seems President Obama has kicked the proverbial hornet's nest. But according to Steve Coll, Obama actually pulled back from an even tougher position that his aides were pressuring him to adopt. Borders aren't the real issue, Coll said: "In private, all serious people know that's actually the easiest part of negotiation. Refugees and Jerusalem are the tough parts."

Hamas wants to be a part of these negotiations going forward, but Israel isn't falling over itself to welcome them to the table. Central to Israel's reluctance is an element in Hamas' 20 year-old charter that refuses to recognize the Jewish state. This week, prior to Obama's speech, a Hamas official claimed that they should not be judged by their charter, that the organization is of a different character than it was 20 years ago. Coll said Israelis wouldn't take that with a straight face.

I think it's laughable for the spokesman for an organization to say, 'Don't judge us by our written charter.' If the charter doesn't represent you, rewrite the charter. I don't think Hamas' record inspires great confidence in their ability to organize themselves in the legitimately more moderate sections of their own organization, to reconcile their own internal discourse. Of course Hamas has potential as a legitimate element of public opinion in Palestinian society, however coercive, radical, and ugly it sometimes looks to us. It does have potential to evolve into a constructive political partner. 

Old-think insecurity

On one level, Hamas asking not to be judged by its charter reflects the anxiety of waning influence that confronted Osama bin Laden and continues to needle Arab leaders across the Middle East. Coll observed that some of the loudest voices in Muslim politics over the last half century, including Hamas, aren't leading the current round of revolts.

They're just as insecure as some of the despotic Arab governments around them about Arab Spring. The youth on the streets in Egypt and Tunis aren't chanting Hamas slogans; this is by and large a secular, diverse and self-determined generation. Hamas rightly feels threatened by what that means for their old-think radicalism.