Editor’s note: David Ignatius has expanded on this immediate-reaction blog post in a column.
With much-ballyhooed speech on the Middle East, President Obama has set himself a challenge that can be summarized in two words: Follow through. Obama spoke with more clarity than some analysts had expected about the two most incendiary issues in the region right now: the violent suppression of protests sweeping Syria by President Bashar al-Assad; and the risk of a new Palestinian explosion if some peace process can’t be restarted.
Obama’s answers on both avoided the conventional wisdom of the day (or rather, yesterday). Rather than offering a quick and easy rhetorical dismissal of Assad, Obama instead called on him to enact specific reforms (as he has claimed he wanted) or leave. And rather than acceding to Israeli wishes that the White House lowball the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Obama insisted on the need for negotiations and stated some simple “principles” to guide negotiations.
But each aspect of Obama’s broad program for the Middle East requires something that has been in short supply at this White House: A systematic ability to implement foreign-policy strategy through committed, emphatic follow-up actions.
It’s this operational question—not the rhetorical framework—that will be the test for Obama’s policies. Somehow, a White House that has burned through two prominent special representatives over the past two years — George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke, neither of whom made much progress in the nitty-gritty of negotiation — will have to empower people to get it done. This diplomacy requires personalities with the manipulative skill and subtlety of a Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski. Do they exist? Can this White House harness them?
The president admirably outlined the tasks for America in this Arab Spring. Now, just do it.