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Right Turn
Posted at 09:45 AM ET, 05/19/2011

Obama’s Middle East gambit abandoned?

The president will give a speech today at the State Department. Aides are scurrying to set the stage and expectations, as Josh Rogin reports:

The Obama administration has been furiously advancing its regional diplomatic efforts on a wide range of issues in the run-up to the Middle East speech that President Barack Obama will deliver at the State Department on Thursday.

Top administration officials have been meeting with Arab leaders, preparing new announcements on aid to the region, finalizing sanctions on bad actors, and closely coordinating the president’s message in the last few days. Obama’s mission is a tough one — to clarify a consistent U.S. approach to the region despite his administration’s varied responses to the uprisings that have occurred throughout the region this year. And there’s a lot on his plate.

If the purpose is to sound more coherent and more supportive of the Freedom Agenda of his predecessor this would be a boon to the region and a major win for conservatives who have criticized President Obama for a lack of both.

As for the moribund peace process, Obama is likely, Middle East watchers expect, to downplay what was the centerpiece of his Middle East policy. Badgering Israel hasn’t worked. Emphasizing settlements hasn’t worked. Ignoring the true intentions of the Palestinians has not worked. Rogin writes:

The relationship between the Arab Spring and the drive for Middle East peace is one area of the speech lawmakers are listening for closely. Does the president think the wave of democratic revolutions across the region make the peace process easier or harder?

“I think in some ways it makes it harder and in some ways it makes it easier,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable. “The thrust of the Arab Spring is democratic and not really religious so that makes it easier. But it’s also harder because when you have a population in a state of upset it’s kind of hard to lead to that population.”

The notion that the Arab Spring could give impetus to the peace process is far-fetched, although often parroted. Consider that Israeli borders have been stormed by Palestinians streaming in from neighboring countries. And recognize that Israel does not know the nature of the regimes on its border. Imagine the United States was being asked to negotiate a security agreement with its neighbor to the north, without knowing if Canada is going to be a pro-West, peaceful democracy or a fundamentalist Islamic state. The suggestion is absurd. And so it is for Israel. It would be a positive sign if Obama articulated this problem rather than turning to the Israelis for another sign of “good faith.”

If Obama can manage to avoid the words “1967 borders” it would suggest some maturation in his thinking. It is clear that the issue is not 1967, but 1948. Unless and until we figure out whether the Palestinian government is going to throw overboard all prior agreements (as Mahmoud Abbas candidly admitted) and is going to finally accept that statehood is tied to the end of war against the Jewish state, it’s ridiculous to talk about the borders of the country the PA wants to destroy. And when and if we do get back to direct negotiations, Obama will need to understand that the 1967 borders are not defensible and that the key to any deal is security for our ally Israel.

Obama, we were told by those on the White House conference call yesterday, has in mind some sort of mega-economic plan for the Middle East. The question is: Who gets the money and under what conditions? The unidentified “senior officials” were at least saying the right things. Aid will require the recipients enact economic reforms, practice transparency and transition to democracy. News reports suggest the dollar amounts will be in the billions ($2 billion to Egypt alone) — and ongoing. This is a vast improvement over the administration’s past rhetoric, suggesting an embrace of the Freedom Agenda with strings attached.

Obama nevertheless will face skepticism on the right, aside from the cost. Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies expressed concern that we are just going to be shoveling money at unstable states: “Rather than blindly providing aid to Middle East countries undergoing transition, we should make it clear that we will only provide support for those countries that are making real progress. That means demonstrating increased respect for human, minority and women’s rights, among other reforms. We should also make it clear that that we’re not going to provide support to countries that appear to be drifting toward Islamist or populist rule.” Egypt may get there, and the Obama administration may be savvy enough to dole out aid when conditions are met. But for now, as Schanzer notes, “Cairo has yet to prove itself on these fronts.”

As for Iran, Schanzer’s colleague Mark Dubowitz, who has been a key player in developing and analyzing sanctions, e-mailed me last night: “I am hoping for forceful comments by Obama on Iran, the most significant threat to both the Arab Spring and American national security. Everyone has taken their eye off the Iranian ball during the tumult of the past few months. Obama needs to get everyone refocused.” He added, “Obama must directly address the issue and make it clear that his administration will never tolerate an Iranian bomb which will be a weapon of both mass oppression and of destruction, and will destroy any hope of liberal democracy in the Arab world.” The opportunity exists here to undo some of the damage done by Obama’s muteness during the Green Revolution. As Dubowitz put it, “He must ask Iran’s leaders to tear down their wall of fear and repression. He must finally speak to the brave Iranians who long for a future free of murder, torture and rape at the hands of their rulers.”

If Obama were to ignore Iran and save that for Sunday’s AIPAC appearance, he would send a bad message. Dubowitz suggested that would give “all the proof you need that his AIPAC speech is a political speech meant to reassure Jewish donors concerned about his handling of Israel.” And it would perpetuate the notion that Iran is Israel’s problem, not ours. In fact, if the Arab Spring has demonstrated anything, it is that an aggressive Iranian regime poses a threat to the entire region.

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By  |  09:45 AM ET, 05/19/2011

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