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Gauging Obama's Mideast Policy Speech

Authors: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Updated May 20, 2011

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President Barack Obama's May 19 speech on the Middle East--backing reform, supporting the 1967 Israeli-Palestinian boundaries as the basis for peace talks, and warning Syria's Bashar al-Assad to lead a democratic transition--was intended to lay out a clearer vision of the administration's approach to the region. How well did the speech succeed? CFR Senior Fellow Elliott Abrams writes that while Obama struck the right tone on supporting democratic reforms, his outline for a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict will go nowhere. Senior Fellow Robert Danin said the president's comments in support of reformers, while inspirational to some, could have a more hollow echo for others. But Danin said the president "broke significant new ground in outlining the territorial basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiation to resolve most, but not all, of their outstanding claims." Senior Fellow Steven A. Cook welcomed the president's debt-relief offer for Egypt, saying it is crucial for the country's economic emergence. But he also raised questions about why Obama did not apply tougher language to Syria's president.

Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

President Barack Obama's Mideast speech was wide-ranging and included some strong elements. The president spoke well about how we view democracy--including not only majority rule but minority rights and the rule of law. The president's words about Israel's security needs were powerful as well, in essence tying any possible Israeli military withdrawal from the West Bank to actual, demonstrable Palestinian security performance rather than mere promises.

But other parts of the speech were less impressive, and two deserve note. First, the president simply rewrote history when it came to supporting democracy in the Middle East. He claimed to have done so from the start, with his Cairo speech. But in fact, his administration's policy was engagement--engagement with regimes, not peoples, including the repressive regimes in Iran and Syria. His reaction to events in Iran in June 2009, and more recently in Tunisia and then Egypt, was cautious and slow. Perhaps this passage was an effort to avoid saying what is more accurate: that the Bush Freedom Agenda turned out to be right, and his own administration had been wrong to jettison it.

Second, on the whole, the president's comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will lead nowhere. It is striking that he suggested no action: no meeting, no envoy, no Quartet session, no invitations to Washington. About the new Fatah-Hamas unity agreement he said this: "How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question." Indeed they must, and they won't, so this is perhaps an acknowledgment by the president that negotiations are simply unrealistic right now.

He did suggest an approach: delay negotiations on Jerusalem and refugees, and resolve the border and security issues first. In fact, the border is most in dispute near Jerusalem, so achieving a border agreement without resolving Jerusalem cannot work. Nor is it realistic that issues be broken off this way--solve the border, forget the refugee issue--for two reasons. A successful negotiation will require trade-offs, so reducing the number of issues on the table may actually make success harder. Moreover, it is difficult to see Israel agreeing to any deal that does not include the refugee issue, for a Palestinian insistence that five million Palestinians have the right to move into Israel means they have not actually accepted the permanent existence of the Jewish state. But it is possible that the White House understands all this, and was mostly seeking to park the issue for the coming year through some "balanced" rhetoric. They may have achieved that goal.

Robert M. Danin, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies

In America's debate over how to react to the Arab uprisings--whether to pursue pure national interests or advance American ideals--President Barack Obama today unambiguously embraced the ideals of self-determination for the peoples of the Middle East. The bold, Wilsonian approach toward the region may inspire some, especially in Syria, where the regime remarkably allowed the president's speech to be aired. Iranians too, who had felt neglected, may take new inspiration from the president's notable mention of the uprising there in June 2009. The region's Kurds may wonder whether the president's repeated invocation of self-determination applies to them.

But Obama's remarks will also fuel the charges of inconsistency that his administration has tried to bat down throughout this year. Saudi Arabia, for example, was conspicuously absent from mention in the speech. Yet neighboring Bahrain, while noted as a long-standing partner, was strongly urged to engage in dialogue with jailed oppositionists.

What Middle Easterners are most likely to focus on is the gap between rhetoric and action. To be sure, the president's reaffirmation of his 2009 Cairo speech and his identification of principles provided economic deliverables, including $1 billion in Egyptian debt forgiveness and a $2 billion private investment facility. But the president's detailed articulation of the terms for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement lacks a clear way forward. Instead, he called for the United States, the Quartet, and the Arabs states "to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse."

That said, the president broke significant new ground in outlining the territorial basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiation to resolve most, but not all, of their outstanding claims. He nodded to the Palestinians on territory and toward the Israelis on security and a bit on refugees, implying no right of return for the Palestinians by calling for two states for two peoples--Israel as a Jewish state and Palestine as a Palestinian state.

More significantly, the administration for the first time articulated the territorial basis for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians: the pre-1967 Six Day War line as the borders between Israel and Palestine. Until now, Washington had called this the Palestinians' goal. To balance this, the president nodded to Israel's West Bank security concerns, saying Palestine will have to be non-militarized, with a phased Israeli withdrawal and security arrangements requiring a Palestinian demonstration of performance.

Yet this tradeoff of territory for the Palestinians and security for the Israelis will probably not be seen as balanced by Israel. Despite Obama's assurances that Israel's "basic security concerns" will be met, his comments called for a "full" West Bank withdrawal, indicating no permanent Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley. Israelis will be pleased, however, with the president's bold challenge to the Palestinians to provide a "credible answer" to the "profound and legitimate" Israeli question of how one negotiates with a partner that is unwilling to recognize your right to exist.

The president's attempt to provide an American response to the Middle East's uprisings was clearly bold and ambitious. Yet his attempt to provide a region-wide unified theory will ultimately prove difficult to square with what has clearly been a case-by-case approach. How his detailed outline of terms for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement will break the current impasse remains to be seen.

Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Regardless of what his administration's policy had been prior to the Arab revolutions--and there is a case to be made that it was stronger on democracy promotion than critics suggest--events in the Middle East compelled President Barack Obama to take to the podium on May 19. Still, the president's declaration that the United States "must proceed with a sense of humility" was important. It indicates that his administration understands both the limits and challenges that lie ahead for the United States in the Arab world. Indeed, Washington does not have a lot of leverage to shape the trajectories of countries currently undergoing change. Also, although he did not spell it out explicitly, the president's cautionary words suggest that he and his advisors understand that U.S. policy has the potential to harm democratic transitions in the region.

The president was correct to emphasize what the United States can do to help Egypt--the largest Arab country and a longtime regional bellwether. The single most important initiative to help Cairo in the short run is debt relief. To be sure, the $1 billion that will be forgiven is a mere fraction of Egypt's overall $190 billion liability, but the administration is signaling to the international community that it too should help refloat an Egyptian economy that has experienced a significant decline in the three months since Hosni Mubarak's fall. It would have been better had Obama sought to relieve Egypt of its entire bilateral debt burden--if only symbolically--but the present political realities of Washington will not allow it.

More curious was the president's statements on Syria. The administration has sharpened its rhetoric on the Assad regime in the last week and took the step of applying sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other senior regime figures, but Obama left open the possibility of a solution that includes the Syrian leader. Some observers have argued that if Assad does all that Obama demands, it will bring about the end of the regime anyway so it doesn't matter if the president calls on the Syrian leader "to lead a transition, or get out of the way." If, in fact, it does not matter, then the president should forcefully declare Assad beyond the pale and help create an environment toward his regime's end. It seems that the administration has made much of the possibility of instability in a post-Assad Syria and taken Turkish equities in that country into account at the expense of broader American strategic interests. That is a mistake.

There is certainly the possibility of instability in Syria should Assad fall, but there was also that potential in post-Mubarak Egypt, yet the president was relatively quick to call for Mubarak to heed the demands of the Egyptian people. The end of Assad's regime would also mean the likely end of the Syrian-Iranian axis, which would benefit the United States and the region by making it significantly harder for Tehran to influence regional politics.

Finally, the president's call for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on Israel's 1967 border with land swaps may have unnerved some Israelis and some of Israel's supporters, but the speech overall does not fundamentally depart from previous ideas and formulations for resolving the conflict. Given that Israel and the Palestinian problem is the most important metric by which Arabs judge the United States, Obama's words likely fell flat in the Middle East.

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