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Obama's Middle East goal: Tie US policy closer to American values

Obama's insistence that US policy in the Middle East support, rather than thwart, popular yearnings for self-rule is a warning to autocrats in the region – and marks an 'update' since his Cairo speech.

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Still, Obama offered some nuances and innovations in terms of US policy that are likely to have an effect in the region. In four areas Obama signaled how a closer dovetailing of American values and policies is likely to translate into action:

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Egypt and Tunisia

The president announced that Egypt and Tunisia, where popular movements have already removed entrenched leaders, will become something akin to demonstration projects for how economic partnerships will be advanced to underpin both economic and political reforms. A $4 billion package of measures for the two countries – mostly involving existing programs and funding – is to include $1 billion in debt relief for Egypt to be redirected to encourage economic development.

Syria

Obama is signaling that the days of waiting for President Bashar al-Assad to stop the repression of his own people and open up to dialogue with his political opposition are numbered. In his speech, Obama went further than ever toward declaring – as he ultimately did in the case of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi – that President Assad has lost his legitimacy as a result of the repression and must go.

“What has begun is an inexorable move towards calling for Assad to leave,” says Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, D.C. “The question now is the time frame,” he adds, “but the clock has begun to tick on Syria.”

Bahrain and Yemen

The administration has until now tread lightly, at least in its public comments, on the tiny island kingdom where Sunni royalty rules over a Shiite majority – and which, significantly, is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

But Obama signaled in his speech that the US will not overlook repression and efforts to deny citizens their rights simply because a country is also a US national security interest.

That seems to go for both Bahrain and Yemen, where the US has an interest in avoiding the kind of extended instability that might open the door wider to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Referring to Bahrain’s political turmoil, Obama said, “The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.”

But the discussion of Bahrain also highlighted one of Obama’s glaring omissions: The president made no mention of Saudi Arabia – a close ally and key source of oil, to be sure, but one that quickly dispatched about 1,000 troops to Bahrain in March to help put down the Shiite protests.

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