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.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama spoke in Washington on May 19, addressing US policy on Egypt and Tunisia, Syria, Bahrain, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Five months into the Arab Spring, President Obama is honing his Middle East strategy with an update to the “new beginning” he proposed for US-Arab relations nearly two years ago in Cairo.

Among the points the president is underscoring: Patience with tyrants is running short – even in cases, like Syria, where fear of an unknown alternative has moderated diplomatic pressures. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not isolated from the changes sweeping the region but demands a solution all the more because of it. And political actors in the new Middle East will be judged more on their actions than on affiliations and past positions.

This last point signifies that, in a region that largely rejected the ideology of Osama bin Laden even before his death at US hands earlier this month, political Islam will not be rejected by the US out of hand.

In a much-anticipated speech in Washington May 19, the president insisted that US policy in the Middle East will be designed to support – rather than thwart – the same popular yearnings for self-rule and prosperity that built America and produced what are now universal values.

Gone is the tipping of the hat to Arab autocrats that has accompanied decades of American calls for expanded political freedoms and economic opportunities in the region. “After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be,” Mr. Obama said. “It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy.”

The change in two years was striking. In Cairo, Obama spoke with one of America’s favorite autocrats, Hosni Mubarak, at his side. Now the US president spotlighted the young protesters of Cairo’s Tahrir Square who chased Mr. Mubarak from power.

Yet even among supporters of Obama’s vision of US policy toward an upended Middle East, the concern is that the lofty rhetoric won’t be easily or quickly translated into results on the Arab street.

“This speech wasn’t like Cairo, which was a message to connect with people in the Arab world. This was about strategies for the region as it undergoes profound change,” says Bruce Jentleson, professor of public policy and political science at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “This had to come with more specifics and will have to be backed up with action.”

Other more-critical regional analysts say Obama’s message may barely register among the drivers of the Arab Spring – who had already decided that the political change is about them and has little to do with the US or any other outside power.

“There’s a feeling in the Arab world that Arabs are having to take matters into their own hands, so in this situation [Obama’s speech] is not going to have that much impact,” says Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

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:

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.


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.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Obama appears to want to find a way to shake up a moribund peace process, even as the seismic changes in the region suggest time is not on the side of those waiting for a better moment to make peace. The president called for an immediate return to negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians that would focus on borders and security – the two “final status” issues that seem the most likely to open the way to reaching a final settlement.

Obama proposed that Israel’s borders before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war broadly serve as the basis for a settlement – hardly a revolutionary stance, given that it has long been seen as the starting point for setting borders, but one that rankles Israel’s conservative government all the same. In a meeting with Obama at the White House Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was emphatic that Israel, for security reasons, would never accept those borders.

But Obama in his speech tried to put the conflict, and his proposal for addressing it, in the regional context.

“The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel must act boldly to advance a lasting peace. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state,” the president added, “cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.”

Obama did speak of the reconciliation between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement and Hamas, the radical Islamist organization. But while he said the Palestinians will have to “answer questions” about Hamas’s rejection of Israel, he did not state categorically that Hamas’s participation in government is an automatic deal breaker. That may have been one of several signals in his speech suggesting that political Islam is likely to be a reality in the region and can be acceptable in nonviolent, democratic forms, some analysts say.

“The president is resisting the temptation to bash political Islam,” says Duke’s Mr. Jentleson, a former State Department official. “He’s setting the standard that, going forward, it won’t be who you are, but what you do, that matters.”

Still, any opening to political Islam strikes others as gravely naive.

Obama called on the world to “support the governments that will be elected later this year” in Egypt and Tunisia, but for others, the world should wait and see.

“What if those governments are dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood – which openly proclaims that ‘Jihad is our way’ – or other groups that favor terrorism as a means and Islamic domination as the ends?” says Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

That includes Hamas. It’s up to the Palestinians, he says, to prove “they want to have a Palestinian state more than they want to annihilate the only Jewish state.”

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