May 19, 2011

PRESIDENT OBAMA on Thursday laid out a far-reaching and energetic new approach to the unfolding Arab revolution. The president unequivocally stated that “it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.” For the first time, he bluntly criticized several Arab rulers, including U.S. allies, who have responded to demands for change with repression; in the case of Syria, the rhetoric is being backed by sanctions. He outlined a major, and crucial, effort to help Arab economies, starting with Egypt and Tunisia.

In short, Mr. Obama gave coherence, resources and direction to a U.S. Middle East policy that had been confused and underpowered. Though the United States cannot determine the outcome of the conflicts and attempted democratic transitions underway from Libya to the Persian Gulf, effective implementation of the new strategy could help tip what has become a seesaw battle between reform and reaction.

Mr. Obama began by clearly stating American support for “a set of universal rights,” including freedom of speech, assembly and religion and “the right to choose your own leaders.” Importantly, he added that U.S. “support for these principles is not a secondary interest” but “a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions.” If implemented, that means a historic change in a U.S. policy that — including under Mr. Obama — concentrated on propping up autocratic but pro-Western regimes.

This new formulation would not be credible to many in the region without specifics. So it was important that Mr. Obama called out rulers who are violently resisting change, including U.S. allies. He urged Yemen’s president to “follow through on his commitment to transfer power,” and he castigated Bahrain’s ruling family for “mass arrests and brute force.”

Mr. Obama addressed the carnage in Syria in public for the first time, saying that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had “chosen the path of murder” and rightly calling for “a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition.” Yet his suggestion that Mr. Assad could still “lead that transition” is hardly credible. Mr. Obama’s alternative for Mr. Assad — that he “get out of the way” — should have been the only one offered.

The economic assistance program Mr. Obama outlined for Egypt and Tunisia, including debt relief, funds for fresh investment and a trade initiative, appears substantial and well grounded. The administration appears prepared to push Arab regimes to adopt economic policies that favor the proven formula of free markets, trade and private enterprise.

Mr. Obama concluded by recommitting himself to pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He forcefully dismissed a nascent Palestinian initiative to seek U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood. Yet the president’s attempt to lay out principles for resolving the conflict — including a reference to Israel’s 1967 borders as the basis for a territorial settlement — provoked a bristling reaction from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who, like some U.S. analysts, perceived a shift in U.S. policy by Mr. Obama toward Palestinian negotiating positions. If the president’s promise of a new diplomatic effort is to be more than rhetoric, he will need to begin by rebuilding trust in his administration among both Israelis and Palestinians.