Deciphering Obama’s Mideast speech

at 11:21 AM ET, 05/19/2011


President Barack Obama delivers a policy address on events in the Middle East at the State Department in Washington, May 19, 2011. (Charles Dharapak - AP)

President Obama’s speech on the Middle East this morning is an attempt to put the Arab Spring into context — and, in effect, to hit the “reset button” on U.S. policy in the region.

(Read the full text of Obama’s speech here.)

Administration officials say they have tried to tackle each uprising in a deliberate fashion, with a response tailored to the situation in each particular country. But the administration in many ways has reaped the worst of all possible outcomes from its approach. Many reports from the region suggest that ordinary Arabs are disappointed in the U.S. response to the uprisings, and believe Obama was too slow to abandon autocrats such as Hosni Mubarak.

Here is a look back at the uprising in Egypt.

Yet at the same time, some of Washington’s closest allies — including Saudi Arabia — feel betrayed at U.S. decision to cut Mubarak loose, leading to a deep chill in relations.

People in the Middle East will also be listening closely to how the president addresses the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Talks that Obama launched with great fanfare last September lasted barely a month, and his peace envoy, former senator George Mitchell, just resigned. Palestinians are pressing ahead with their own plan to win recognition as a state from the United Nations — a move Obama opposes — and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will meet with Obama tomorrow.

INTERACTIVE MAP: Click here to see our continuous coverage of the mideast protests.

As the president speaks, we will try to provide some guidance and context to his words.

UPDATE: 12:25 p.m.

Quite a mutual admiration society between Obama and Clinton at the start of the speech, almost overdoing it. It may seem hard to remember, but they were bitter rivals in the 2008 campaign. 

Obama completely overstates Clinton’s mileage. He says she is approaching 1 million frequent flyer miles, when in fact she is just over 500,000 as of May 16, according to the State Department Web site. It took Condoleezza Rice, the current recordholder, almost four years to reach 1 million miles. 

UPDATE: 12:40 p.m.

Obama listed a number of key interests that the United States has in the Middle East:

For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce, and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.

He did not mention oil.

Obama referenced his 2009 speech in Cairo. People may have forgotten, but that speech greatly shortchanged democracy, listing it as the fourth item of five “sources of tension” and discussing it in a very tentative fashion. At the time, he was reacting, negatively, to pushback from Arab leaders against President George W. Bush’s focus on democracy in the Middle East. Obama spoke then as a classic foreign policy “realist,” someone who is distrustful of moralizing and who deals with countries according to their impact on U.S. interests.

UPDATE: 12:50 p.m.

Obama comes close to calling for the ouster of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, but does not quite do it: “President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way.” This is similar to language Obama used about Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi — before telling them to step down. So he is clearly moving in that direction.

SLIDESHOW: Syrians take to the streets to protest against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

For the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, he sugarcoats the bitter pill of his demands for reform by adding some tough language about Iranian influence in the region. But he still speaks pretty sharply to an ally that hosts the 5th Fleet: “Bahrain is a long-standing partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law. Nevertheless, we have insisted publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away.”

UPDATE: 12:58 p.m.

Obama lists a number of steps the United States will take to help grow the economies of Tunisia and Egypt. Phrases like, “We will relieve . . . we will help,” make it sound like a done deal. But here is some missing context:

— the $1 billion in debt relief/debt swap Obama is promising to Egypt will need approval from Congress . . . so it could take months.

— the Enterprise Funds also face some hurdles. Clinton lobbied to get such a fund into the fiscal year 2011 supplemental but failed, mainly because it was very late in the process and opening up the budget bargain would have meant the Republicans could have made new demands. So this, too, will take months.

Also, several prominent lawmakers, including Rep. Kay Granger (R-Tex.), head of the House Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, have made it clear they want to see who comes to power in Egypt in the November elections before handing over new money.

UPDATE: 1:10 p.m.

Obama makes huge news with his language on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, siding with his advisers (such as Clinton) who wanted him to lay down some specific guidelines for talks. What he said is couched in the dry language of diplomacy — but it runs directly counter to what the Israeli government has said for months, if not years.

SLIDESHOW: Israeli troops clashed with Palestinian protesters last week.

Here are two key points in full:

“The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”

Also:

“The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state.”

As an example of how striking this language is in the international world of diplomacy, here is what Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted as Obama spoke:

Pres Obama: “The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” Yes, fundamental!

Why is this important? Palestinians have long demanded that the border that existed before the 1967 war be the basis of negotiations, and the Israeli government refused. This was a key reason why the talks never really got off the ground in the past two years. Netanyahu has also said he would never remove Israeli troops from the Jordan Valley, and Obama said there must be a “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces.”

Obama prefaced this section with a new and potentially important concept: “While the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, and a secure Israel.” He is equating the two in a way that may make Israelis uncomfortable.

Leave no doubt, these words will send shockwaves in the Middle East.

UPDATE: 1:22 p.m.

The speech is over. But sometimes the most interesting thing is what the president did not say.

1. Not one word about Saudi Arabia. As mentioned before, U.S.-Saudi relations have chilled in the wake of the administration’s response to the Arab Spring. Obama talked around the Saudis, especially when he mentioned Bahrain (whose crackdown on dissent is being aided by Saudi forces.).

By contrast, in his Cairo speech two years ago, Obama took care to give a shout-out to King Abdullah, as in, “We welcome efforts like Saudi Arabian King Abdullah’s interfaith dialogue and Turkey’s leadership in the Alliance of Civilizations.”

One can be pretty sure this speech will not endear Obama any more to the king. But the White House probably thought it best not to mention the Saudis.

2. Virtually no mention of Israeli settlement activity. Obama only blandly said: “Israeli settlement activity continues.”

This is a far cry from the attention he gave the issue in the 2009 Cairo speech, drawing sustained applause from the audience. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” Obama said then. “This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

Of course, that effort to pressure Israel on settlements blew up diplomatically in the administration’s face. Israel balked at a total freeze, and then the deal the United States cut with Netanyahu ended up upsetting the Palestinians. So it is little wonder the president decided to basically skip the subject this time around.

UPDATE: 3:54 p.m.

Obama’s call for talks to start with the 1967 borders drew an angry reaction from Netanyahu.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both Houses of Congress,” his office said in a statement. “Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers [settlements] in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] beyond those lines.”

Netanyahu is referring to a 2004 letter sent by President Bush to Israel’s then- prime minister, Ariel Sharon, in which Bush said “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” (The 1949 armistice lines are the more official way of referring to the borders of Israel before the 1967 war.) That letter was considered a huge diplomatic achievement by Israel, but Obama pointedly refused to endorse it when he assumed the presidency.

Before today, the Obama administration had referred only to a “Palestinian goal” of a state based on the 1967 lines. Now Obama has made that goal official U.S. policy.

See how people are reacting to Obama’s speech on twitter.

 
Read what others are saying

    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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