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.
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Obama was also genuine and creative when he discussed the importance of economic reform in the Middle East and how the United States intends to provide timely assistance on that front. Obama is right to state that closed economies in the region do not advance the cause of freedom and prosperity. He should be applauded for coming up with specific plans to help the countries of Egypt, Tunisia, and others in the their quest for economic development. Kudos to the USAID team at the State Department for the work they have done on that front.Skip to next paragraph
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The negatives of the speech, however, can easily overshadow the positives. On a broader level, the speech did not fully appreciate the historic and game-changing nature of events in the Middle East. Mr. President, this is not about reform, it is about renewal. When Obama calls Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to reform and lead the transition to democracy, knowing full well that the dictator in Damascus will do neither, his words are not credible, to say the least.
Worse, they undermine the cause of freedom in Syria. What the Syrian people want is no less than what their Egyptian neighbors got – regime change. For Obama to call for a serious dialogue between the Syrian protesters and the regime is naïve and counterproductive. Obama should call on Mr. Assad to immediately step down. There simply is no alternative.
Finally, it is remarkable how Obama omitted Saudi Arabia in his speech, the country where the tension between US interests and values is most evident. Nobody expects Obama to push the Saudi leadership to embrace full-fledged democracy, but to say nothing about the kingdom’s repressive policies that deny basic rights to its women is quite shameful.
Also, where was Lebanon and its 2005 popular uprising in the speech? Lebanon’s one-million-people demonstrations should have been credited for instilling hope in the people of the region and setting the stage for the present revolutions. Obama’s deafening silence on Lebanon’s fate is unjustifiable.
US will be judged on actions, not words
Ultimately, America will be judged on its actions in the Middle East, not its words.
Take any professional Arab public opinion poll and it will show that Arabs perceive America through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not through its economic assistance packages to the region.
The United States is asked to do more to ease the suffering of the Palestinian people and help both Israelis and Palestinians reach the vision of two states for two peoples. Until Israeli-Palestinian peace happens, no speech will drastically change America’s image in the Middle East.