Obama's Middle East speech: Good but irrelevant
President Obama’s Middle East speech at the State Department today is likely to be positively received in Washington. Middle Easterners, however, will probably find it disappointing, or worse, irrelevant.
College Park, Md.
President Obama’s Middle East speech at the State Department today is likely to be positively received in Washington. Middle Easterners, however, will probably find it disappointing, or worse, irrelevant.Skip to next paragraph
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First off, to avoid major disappointment, it is always wise to lower expectations. Despite its eloquence, the speech was simply not going to wash away the reality that the United States has been irrelevant throughout this Arab Spring. It was also not going to remove or ease the enduring and profound tension between America’s short-term security interests and its long-term aspiration to promote freedom and democracy in the Middle East.
Mr. Obama can say all he wants that the two objectives are not incompatible. But until he makes a compelling case to Middle Easterners as to how the United States intends to achieve both goals simultaneously, and until he explains why the United States continues to fall short in reaching them, it is just empty rhetoric.
Without any doubt, the chief question that Obama asked in his speech – and that the entire world was waiting for – was what role the United States will play in this historic episode in the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, there was no clear or persuasive answer to that question. Obama insisted that the “status quo was unsustainable” in the Middle East and in US foreign policy toward that region, but he did not flesh out a new, bold vision that breaks with the past. And he did not call for a road map for the future.
The positives of Obama's speech
So here’s what we can do to make the discussions and evaluation of Obama’s speech more fruitful. If we put these two issues aside – America’s irrelevance in this historic episode and its inability to drastically change its strategy in the region – we can address other elements that were missing in the speech.
Let’s start with the positives. Obama was at his best when he discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (although many Palestinians and Arabs will be disappointed that he decided to address the most important issue to them at the very end). It was crucial that Obama mention very clearly that the foundation for the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians is the 1967 borders. That is quite a welcome change in US approach.
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Territorial and security issues should be discussed first, simply because progress on those matters, assumed to be easier to make, will build confidence between the two parties and create a positive momentum to tackle the thorny challenges of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees.