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The Monitor's View

Obama Middle East speech: That was the easy part

In case people doubted – and they did – the United States is on the side of democracy protesters, Obama said in his Middle East speech. But he did little to help Americans or Arabs grapple with hard choices.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / May 19, 2011



In the Arab Spring, whose side is America on?

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That question arose as the US backed – hesitatingly, at first – pro-democracy protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, yet seemed to go soft on the dictators of Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen.

President Obama answered that question clearly in his speech on the Middle East today: “It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.”

As in his Cairo speech to the Muslim world in 2009, the president flew high on the rhetoric of freedom, saying that the US will speak out for core principles, such as nonviolence, universal rights, and political and economic reform. This had to be done, given the suspicions of demonstrators in the Middle East and North Africa about American motives, as well as criticisms in the US.

Mr. Obama backed up his endorsement with a $2 billion financial package to a democratic Egypt, and trade and economic incentives to encourage countries to transition to democracy. And he tried to move forward the related issue of a two-state solution to the Palestinian question by suggesting that negotiations start with a plan based on the pre-1967 borders and Israel’s security. That’s a welcome, definitive step.

And yet, ambiguities about American policy remain, born of the situation on the ground and of US interests that compete with the overall goal of helping a region slip from the grasp of autocrats.

The president spelled out America’s interests in the region, which is a helpful review for an overview speech like this. Those interests are to keep terrorism and nuclear weapons at bay (think of countries such as Iran and Yemen), while advancing regional security and free commerce (he’s talking oil, here), and Israeli security and Israeli-Palestinian peace.

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