President Obama’s Middle East speech contained a surprising amount of specificity — and in that, some real steel. Not just U.S. adversaries, such as Syria and Iran, but friends, such as Bahrain and Israel, were singled out for presidential pointers that will leave their leaders smarting.
Take Bahrain, a Persian Gulf emirate and close U.S. ally that hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Its ruling al-Khalifa family, which is Sunni Muslim, has been staging a harsh crackdown on the Shiite majority, which was prominent in recent mass demonstrations seeking greater freedom. Obama began by calling Bahrain “a longstanding partner” and said the United States would defend its security. He acknowledged that nearby Iran had tried to exploit its unrest.
But then Obama bluntly condemned the repression. He said “the only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and it can’t have a dialogue when part of the opposition are in jail.” Later the president declared that “Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.” The regime has responded angrily to accusations by human rights groups of deliberate mosque demolitions; now it will have to answer Obama.
Israelis and Palestinians each will have their reasons to be unsettled by the president’s words. Obama did not lay out a specific U.S. plan for Middle East peace, limiting himself to repeating principles that his administration and past administrations have endorsed before — like the notion that a territorial settlement between Israel and a Palestinian state must be based on Israel’s 1967 borders.
But Obama acidly dismissed the plan by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to seek recognition of Palestinian statehood by the United Nations General Assembly this September, declaring that “symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations will not create an independent state.” He also said “Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer” to the question of how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, which refuses to accept Israel’s existence.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will be pleased by those words — but probably discomforted by Obama’s insistence that peace negotiations can no longer be delayed and that Israel “must act boldly.” Though the administration’s chief Middle East negotiator, George Mitchell, recently resigned in frustration, Obama reembraced his negotiating strategy, calling for negotiations that focus on territory and security while postponing the issues of sovereignty over Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. Netanyahu has never liked that approach.
One leader who may feel a little relieved is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. True, Obama lambasted him, saying he had “chosen the path of murder.” But then he gave him one more chance. Assad, he said, “has a choice: He can lead that transition [to democracy] or get out of the way.” Plenty of Syrians will wonder why a dictator who has used tanks and artillery to gun down hundreds of unarmed civilians should still be regarded as the potential leader of a democratic reforms.
In all, Obama’s speech contained plenty of his trademark soaring rhetoric about human rights and dignity and a broad U.S. commitment to support democractic transition in Arab states, economic development, and an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. But in most of the region’s capitals today, officials will be talking about those specific zingers.