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.