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Obama's Big Mideast Speech: Hits the Right Notes, Not a Whole Lot of Substance

Obama offered plenty of airy rhetoric about advancing our "values," but actions speak louder than words and the world continues to await some tangible results.

A super-power is like a super-tanker: it doesn't turn quickly. In his second major address about America's relationship with the “Muslim world,” Barack Obama continued a course correction that's been woefully slow for his base at home and much of his overseas audience, yet has been frighteningly fast for some.

Obama tried to thread a narrow needle. He sought to reassure the citizens of the Middle East and North Africa that the U.S. would support their “Arab Spring,” defusing charges that the administration had been slow to support protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. At the same time, he didn't once mention Saudi Arabia and gave short shrift to Bahrain – signaling to our traditional allies that U.S. policy wouldn't change too dramatically or too rapidly. He tried to assure Israel – and skeptics within the American Jewish community – that his administration would continue to support the Jewish state, even while renewing his calls for a negotiated solution to its decades-long conflict with the Palestinians. He promised greater efforts to spur regional growth.

The resulting speech was more check-list than sweeping narrative – he covered all his bases. Throughout, one could sense a contest between the administration's idealism and its realism. “For decades,” he said, “the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce, and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.” He pledged to continue those policies.

At the same time, Obama acknowledged “that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind.”

Moreover, failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our own interests at their expense. Given that this mistrust runs both ways – as Americans have been seared by hostage taking, violent rhetoric, and terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of our citizens – a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and Muslim communities. 

Obama laid out a set of “core principles” that the U.S. would pursue in the region, including the guarantee of civil rights and the promotion of economic development. “Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest,” he said. “Today I am making it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.”

He offered a few specifics, calling out the Syrian, Libyan and Iranian regimes for suppressing peaceful protests – the speech came a day after his administration imposed sanctions on Syria – and promising to forgive $1 billion in Egyptian debt to the U.S.

Observers of the Israel-Palestine conflict will continue to parse his words in the coming days, but there was little in the way of news. Obama renewed decades-long calls for a negotiated “two-state solution” based on the 1967 borders. He affirmed Israel's “right to defend itself,” bemoaned that Palestinians continue “suffering the humiliation of occupation,” and called for the creation of a sovereign, non-militarized” Palestinian state – the usual oxymoron.

And at the center of this “new approach” to the Middle East, Barack Obama dusted off a proposal for a free trade area that was first articulated by George W. Bush in 2003.

“The United States will launch a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa,” he promised.