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.

In the Arab Spring, whose side is America on?

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.

These interests, he maintained, “are not hostile to people’s hopes.” And indeed, a democratic Middle East and North Africa would not be served by a nuclear arms race with Iran or a sudden cut off in oil supplies.

But in the short term, those questions do present policy challenges and choices. A prime example involves the autocratic rulers in the Gulf states, which are also America’s allies against Iran. Push democracy in Bahrain? Or choose to keep a US naval base there that keeps Iran in check and ensures that oil tankers can move about?

An immediate concern, too, is the US budget and an overextended military. Go all the way in Libya and topple Muammar Qaddafi? Or play merely a supportive role in the NATO military operation there, skirt Congress and the War Powers Resolution, and hope for a tightening against Qaddafi that eventually forces him out

The president acknowledged, “we cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people” – and then warned of the costly Iraq example of imposing regime change.

How much should the US be concerned with mounting deaths – by the hundreds – in Syria? Ally Israel prefers the devil in Damascus that it knows compared with the one that might take his place

Obama advanced the answer when he slapped sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad this week, and said today that Syria’s president can lead a democratic transition “or get out of the way.

It’s remarkable that a country such as the US was even in the position of having to remind the world that “we are the democracy backers, remember?” This speech may have served to do that, but that was the easy part. It did not come close to helping Americans or the Arab world grapple with the trade-offs between often-competing aims and very hard decisions on the road to an “Arab summer.”

That’s a discussion that the administration must have not only with itself and its partners around the world, but with Congress and the American people. Obama said candidly that there is no “straight line” to progress in the region. Merely warning generally about that, though, is not enough.

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