President Obama will deliver what his aides have billed as a “sweeping” and “comprehensive” speech on the Middle East Thursday at the State Department. Here are five questions Obama’s address could answer.
1. What is the U.S. vision for how the region will look two, 10 and 50 years from now?
Obama has avoided the kind of broad democracy-promoting language of President George W. Bush. He has also shied away from connecting the events in each country and the U.S. responses into any kind of “Obama Doctrine” on the Middle East.
But White House advisers have billed the speech as “sweeping,” so Obama could choose to describe how he sees the developments of this year and if he thinks they will build toward the kind of democratic reform seen in Eastern Europe and Latin America in the last three decades.
2. How and when does the U.S. decide to call for a leader to step down or intervene militarily?
The Obama administration has not precisely set a standard for when it will support military action that could force out a leader (Libya) versus calling for the resignation of a leader (Egypt) or simply condemning some of a leader’s behavior (Syria).
Obama is unlikely to produce a “five-step guide to suppressing democratic uprisings in your country but not badly irritating the U.S.” But the speech is likely to take some steps to put the administration’s handling of the region the last few months into a broader framework.
3. How do the events in the Middle East affect the United States?
In his speech in March defending U.S. military intervention in Libya, Obama tried to explain to the public why a North African country that is not a key economic partner to the U.S. or a security threat was still important.
“Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security — responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce,” he said then. “These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us. They’re problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.”
Obama’s speech is likely to have some kind of “so what” element; trying to articulate to Americans exactly why his administration is spending so much time on the “Arab Spring.”
4. Does Obama view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as central to the broader events in the Middle East? Either way, how much energy will he invest in resolving it?
In his only other major address on the Middle East, given in June 2009 in Cairo, Obama pledged to make resolving that long-standing conflict one of his major foreign policy goals. It hasn’t been up to now, but the speech could provide Obama a new opportunity to frame his views on the issue.
5. How does the president view these events in the context of his four or eight years in office?
One could argue the spread of democracy in the Middle East, if achieved, would be the most important result of the Obama presidency. But the president, in the midst of historic events in the region, has publicly continued to hold town halls on the U.S. economy and generally cast economic growth as the most important goal of his presidency. The speech could show how Obama views the developments in the Middle East in terms of his own legacy.
Appearing at two fundraisers in the Boston area Wednesday night, Obama stuck to his script: he listed his accomplishments in office and told his supporters they needed to start campaigning.
He didn’t mention the GOP field, which lost perhaps its most anti-Obama figure when Donald Trump opted against running this week.
Obama will also be interviewed by the BBC, ahead of his trip to Europe next week. And he will attend his fifth fundraiser of the week, stopping by a DNC event in Washington.