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

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 asovereign, 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.

If you take out oil exports, this region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland. So we will work with the EU to facilitate more trade within the region, build on existing agreements to promote integration with U.S. and European markets, and open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement. Just as EU membership served as an incentive for reform in Europe, so should the vision of a modern and prosperous economy create a powerful force for reform in the Middle East and North Africa.

That should sound familiar. "The Arab world has a great cultural tradition, but is largely missing out on the economic progress of our time," Bush said in a 2003 speech announcing his initiative. The trade deal, he said, would bring the Middle East into an "expanding circle of opportunity."

Obama said, “Prosperity also requires tearing down walls that stand in the way of progress – the corruption of elites who steal from their people; the red tape that stops an idea from becoming a business; the patronage that distributes wealth based on tribe or sect. We will help governments meet international obligations, and invest efforts anti-corruption."

In 2003, Bush said, “We will work with our partners to ensure that small and mid-sized businesses have access to capital, and support efforts in the region to develop central laws on property rights and good business practices... By replacing corruption and self-dealing with free markets and fair laws, the people of the Middle East will grow in prosperity and freedom."

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Obama wasn't bolder. He spoke at a time when U.S. influence in the region is at an all-time low in modern history. He offered plenty of airy rhetoric about advancing our “values,” but ultimately, actions speak louder than words and the world continues to await some tangible results.  


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