Obama’s Speech Leaves ‘Disappointment’ Abroad

Correction May 19, 2011

Due to a reporter’s error, Brian Katulis’ comment was misreported. The word “Palestinians” was dropped from the quote.

With the White House having raised expectations in advance, President Obama’s speech Thursday about the Middle East and North Africa left many people in the region disappointed.

Obama was attempting to square a difficult circle. He wanted to reaffirm America’s support for democratic aspirations, but at the same time did not want to worsen a rift with allies such as Saudi Arabia about the pace of change.

Obama linked the region’s democratic movements to U.S. values and moments in the American past, but he did not signal a major change in course by stating that America would support democratic movement unequivocally.

“He said nothing new,” says Diana Buttu, a former adviser to the Palestinian Authority, who watched the speech at a coffee shop in Ramallah, in the West Bank. “People here are not happy, and neither am I.”

No Bold Statements

The policy portions of the speech were limited to the official announcement of the relatively modest aid package for the nascent democracies in Egypt and Tunisia and a restatement of the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process

On the eve of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, Obama tacked a course that hewed at times closer to the Palestinian line – criticizing Israel’s continued settlement activity and calling for an eventual end to its military occupation of the Palestinian territories – and at others to the Israeli position. For instance, Obama appeared to reject the Palestinian strategy of seeking statehood recognition at the United Nations this fall.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, called an emergency meeting of its leadership and will consult with Arab leaders to formulate a response, according to a spokesman. The spokesman said Abbas appreciated Obama’s support for “self-determination, freedom and dignity.”

Just before getting on his plane to Washington, meanwhile, Netanyahu issued a statement noting that he hoped to hear “reaffirmation” from Obama of past U.S. commitments. “Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines, which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines,” it said.

Obama in his speech called for Israel’s borders to reflect its territory prior to the Six-Day War in 1967, with the possibility of the two future states swapping some land that would otherwise fall within the new lines.

A Clear Strategy?

But Obama was silent about some of America’s main national interests in the region. He made bare mention of oil and no mention of Saudi Arabia, which has emerged as the region’s primary counterrevolutionary force.

It’s possible that was because Obama didn’t want to worsen the rift between the U.S. and the Saudis, suggests Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. Still, Hamid says, it amounted to a “gaping hole in this speech.”

“There was no acknowledgment that the U.S. had made mistakes, that it has supported dictators in the region for 50 years,” he says. “There was no self-criticism.”

The speech was billed as a “corrective” to the criticism the Obama administration has encountered in some quarters in the Arab world this year, Hamid says, that its actions have been largely reactive and the level of support it has shown for democracy movements has varied on a country-by-country basis.

If Thursday’s speech was meant to show that the administration has a coherent strategy for the region, Hamid said, it failed. A day after imposing sanctions on Syria’s top leaders for human-rights abuses, Obama expressed hope that President Bashar al-Assad might yet opt for reform and “lead” his nation’s “transition to democracy.”

“This will become known as the ‘then what’ speech,” says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, “because everyone will be asking that question if Israelis and Palestinians continue to stonewall, Syria and Bahrain continue to crack down, and the economic problems” in the region continue.

Some Positive Reviews

Not all the reaction was critical. Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that Obama articulated the potential borders for Israel and Palestine more explicitly than any U.S. leader had done before.

Others noted that Obama’s speech began to add specifics about how the U.S. will seek to help regional allies going forward. His economic package for Egypt and Tunisia seeks not only to bolster their economies but open them up, combating the protectionism long common to the region. “Trade, not just aid,” as Obama described it.

“I think this goes substantially beyond what Obama said in his Cairo speech in 2009, where he merely set the tone for the new administration and talked about general principles of a new American policy towards the Arab world,” Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, a political scientist at American University in Cairo, told Reuters. “I think he is coming up with a concrete indication of policy on the major issues the Arab world is facing.”

Something For Everyone

But while the Cairo speech was a general outline of principles, Thursday’s speech was an attempt to outline the current U.S. position. And Obama was trying to offer different messages to different groups – both adversarial regimes and democracy activists in the region, as well as the domestic audience in the U.S. – says Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.

“It had been set up as a counterpoint to Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech and it could never live up to that promise, because it was trying to respond to too many audiences at once,” Joshi says. “It offered each of them something, but none of them really enough.”

Obama insisted “that America’s interests are not hostile to people’s hopes; they are essential to them.”

Still, like Hamid, Joshi’s primary criticism of the speech was that although Obama praised the ideals of democracy and self-determination, he avoided offering clear guidance about how he would react in situations where such principles might bump up against other U.S. interests.

“I think the single dominant reaction will be a sense of disappointment,” Joshi says. “I think the White House really failed in terms of expectations management.”

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