On the eve of a major speech meant to define U.S. interests in the Middle East, Obama announced new financial sanctions against seven senior Syrian officials for human rights abuses, naming President Bashar al-Assad among them for the first time.
Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, also phoned Yemen’s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to urge him to accept an Arab-brokered agreement that would usher him from office within a month.
And, in a preview of Obama’s Thursday address, senior administration officials outlined a number of economic initiatives that the president will announce to encourage democratic changes in the region, including a total of $2 billion in debt relief and loan guarantees for Egypt’s fledgling government.
The speech is Obama’s first attempt to place the anti-government demonstrations, which have swept away autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and threatened several others, in the context of American interests and values.
Administration officials say the address will not include a host of new proposals but rather will seek to make the broader point that the United States favors democratic reform as something consistent with its long-term security interest in the region’s stability. For instance, Obama is not expected to call specifically for Assad’s removal as Syria’s leader, officials said.
One senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the address for reporters, said the speech “comes at a moment of opportunity for the region and for U.S. policy in the region.”
“We’re obviously coming off a decade of great tension and division across the region,” the official said. “Now, having wound down the Iraq war and continuing to do so, and having taken out Osama bin Laden, we’re trying to turn the page to a more positive future for U.S. policy in the region.”
The speech will serve as the rhetorical centerpiece of a busy period of Middle East diplomacy for Obama, beginning in Washington and moving next week to the Group of Eight summit of economic powers in France.
Status of peace talks
Obama met Tuesday with a key Arab ally, King Abdullah II of Jordan, who Arab diplomats say lobbied the president to use his address to outline a specific blueprint for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Obama, who is hosting Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Friday at the White House, inaugurated a new round of peace talks last year, only to see them collapse within weeks.
Netanyahu has argued that violence in Syria, the new Palestinian unity agreement and the changes in Egypt create too much uncertainty for peace talks to begin soon.
U.S. officials have also said it is too early to tell what kind of Palestinian government will emerge from the agreement between the secular Fatah movement, which recognizes Israel, and Hamas, the armed Islamist movement designated a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel.
How much Obama should say about the peace process in the speech has been the subject of debate inside the White House for weeks. As recently as Tuesday, drafts of the speech were circulating with the Israeli-Palestinian section omitted.
Advisers describe one camp, led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, arguing for Obama to set out a specific set of principles to resolve the conflict, including setting final borders, dividing Jerusalem and finessing the emotional question of whether Palestinian refugees should have the right to return to homes inside Israel.
But Arab diplomats say Obama will probably be far less specific in his speech, mentioning the conflict in general terms and urging both parties to return to negotiations as quickly as possible. Administration officials said no final decision had been made as of Wednesday evening, and Obama often tinkers with speeches until the last minute.
A more general statement would mark a victory for national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon and Vice President Biden, who have long professional histories with Middle East adviser Dennis B. Ross, a veteran of the Clinton administration’s peace efforts.
Ross favors giving Israel more time to assess the region’s changing politics before adding new pressure to return to negotiations.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told reporters Wednesday that “it would be sad, given the president’s commitment on these issues since the beginning, to see Middle East peace pushed aside. It is very easy to make an excuse not to move forward. It takes statesmanship and conviction to move forward despite difficulties.”
In North Africa
Obama is also being asked to do more in North Africa. European diplomats have said this week that Obama, when he visits Britain and France next week, should expect to hear requests for help in escalating the military campaign against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
After carrying out the initial phase of military airstrikes, Obama turned over control to NATO, placed U.S. warplanes on standby and sent in armed Predator drones. The rebellion has largely stalled on the ground, and some European diplomats say more American help is needed to hit Gaddafi’s command-and-control sites.
“The French and the British might, as they have in the past, ask for a stronger U.S. military commitment in Libya,” said a European diplomat familiar with the G-8 agenda who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Obama hesitated to fully back the anti-government demonstrations as they unfolded in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, following some European leaders in calling for regime change. He also has cautiously championed reform, but not a change in government, in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where the United States has more-potent interests in maintaining the status quo.
Administration officials said U.S. diplomats are one target audience for the speech, which will spell out the need for new diplomacy to meet the challenges posed by movements harnessing social media and other technology to overturn autocracies.
Drawing on the findings of an internal White House study of democratic transitions from Latin America to Southeast Asia, Obama will propose a set of economic policy prescriptions to help ensure that democratic governments take hold in the Middle East.
“There are a diverse set of economies in the region,” said a second administration official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the speech. “But all share the untapped potential of its young people.”
In addition to the debt relief and loan guarantees for Egypt, the proposals are designed to encourage economic reform, trade liberalization, educational support and training to improve private-sector management practices, as well as financial help from lending institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which played a key role in Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy.
“This is the window for us to take concrete action,” one official said.
Staff writer Joby Warrick contributed to this report.