Cairo: Part Deux

05/20/2011 09:39 am ET | Updated Jul 20, 2011

The president set out yesterday to valiantly reset U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East by embracing the Arab Spring, establishing a new blueprint for America's goals in the region. As a highly anticipated and long-overdue addendum to his 2009 address in Cairo, the speech was intended to regain lost support among younger Arabs deeply disappointed with America's continued hesitation between dictators and democracy.

But judging by much of the region's reaction, the address needlessly stepped on its own core message by opening yet another inopportune rift with the Israeli government on the eve of Benjamin Netanyahu's meeting with the president.

Under any circumstances, the president confronted extraordinary challenges selling his message to his intended Arab audience.

The Middle East has dramatically changed since his first Cairo address nearly two years ago. From the moment young Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia last December, the White House has consistently been two steps behind rapidly unfolding revolts, flip-flopping along the way depending on the shelf life of its autocratic allies. This palatable uncertainty has cost us precious support among young Arabs hoping for more out of America.

And when the U.S. has tried to act, it has often been too little too late. In a region where actions speak louder than words, the United States has (so far at least) failed to move the needle against Gaddafi in Libya, continued to throw lifelines to Syria's Assad, and has absolutely nothing to show for its failed two-year effort at forging a Middle East peace except a self-indulgent and untimely resignation from George Mitchell, its Middle East envoy.

The president could have done better.

He could have articulated a more coherent policy in Libya, including recognizing the Libyan opposition and announcing a "lend-lease" program to help the rebels. He could have declared the Assad regime illegitimate and announced his determination to seek more international sanctions on the regime. Had there been more effort, he also could have unveiled an actual multilateral economic development initiative that would establish a new Middle East enterprise fund financed largely through wealthier Arab oil producers with U.S. and European support. Instead, he merely pledged to try to seek support for the concept when he travels next week to Europe.

The president also could have declared his intention to personally commit his prestige to restarting stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. And he could have reached out to the Israeli people on the eve of his summit with the Israeli prime minister, encouraging them to innovatively approach the Arab revolts as an opportunity to rebuild support for Israel's legitimate aspirations in the Middle East.

But he did none of this, which is why I am afraid the speech may not realize its full potential.

As presidential speeches go, it was a rhetorical tour de force. The president painstakingly articulated a well-constructed linkage between America's core values and the values motivating Arabs to face down the forces of repression. It represented an inspiring evocation of American history to better align Arab revolts with our own founding principles.

Among the president's many challenges is transforming his remarks into actual policy. "Cairo 1" faded into history largely because the White House was so slow translating the president's principles into actual and sustainable programs.

The president articulated a series of sensible economic assistance initiatives to support Egypt's and Tunisia's democratic transition. But matching word with deed depends not only on finding the funds necessary to launch these programs, but also rewiring his administration to avoid the same pitfall of overpromising and underperforming. So far, the president has not deemed it necessary to appoint anyone with adequate authority to expedite a coordinated and rapid outreach to Arab democrats. Judging by the lost opportunities from "Cairo 1," that would be committing the same error twice.

And without realizing the consequences, the president then fell off his city on a hill.

Two thirds of the way into the address, he took an unanticipated and lengthy deep dive into the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Buried on Page 11 he proclaimed: "The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.."

This was the first time any U.S. president has publicly made such a declaration. Nothing particularly new in the words themselves (indeed, almost anyone involved in Middle East peace negotiations has long understood this to be informal U.S. policy).

However, it now appears that virtually everyone who read the speech is singularly fixated on this sentence as if the entire speech were constructed around it. That is truly regrettable.

Like other clumsy compromises between those who wanted the U.S. to lay out a more comprehensive U.S. position and those who wanted to avoid diverting the speech's objectives, the president inserted this declaration at the eleventh hour without laying adequate groundwork with our ally, Israel, or with the Palestinians. Perhaps the White House hoped it would dissuade Palestinians hellbent on forcing the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state within pre-67 borders. But it likely will not achieve this goal. So it begs the question: In the absence of any ongoing negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis, why open up this can of worms now when it rewards the White House with little but more headaches at a time when Israel feels even more threatened by unfolding events?

The president is understandably frustrated with the stalled peace process. He has staked a great deal on America forging a Middle East peace as part of a broader effort to rebuild America's security in the world. But he is going to have to do far more than merely complaining. It is high time for him to show that he is personally prepared to fill the void created by the region's new realities. He is going to invest the time and effort to convince Israelis of his commitment to their security and to Palestinians that there is hope for a compromise if they are willing to do so without Hamas.

He is going to have to try his level best to do what every predecessor before him well understood: while peace cannot be forced on both sides, it takes a president to invest the personal time necessary to get the sides to compromise, rather than subcontracting it to envoys lacking access to the Oval Office. Only then will his declaration have any real resonance to it.

It will also take a president deeply engaged in his own speech's goals to convince young Arabs that America is truly on their side.

The president has now once again placed the nation's credibility with Arabs and with Israelis on his own shoulders and he is just going to have to accept the consequences through his own investment of time and effort.