Obama's Perplexing Speech

05/24/2011 05:38 pm ET | Updated Jul 24, 2011
  • Will Marshall President and Founder, Progressive Policy Institute

President Obama made the cardinal mistake last week of stepping on his own message. His "winds of change" speech was supposed to formalize an historic shift in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Instead, Obama managed to put the spotlight on the one thing in the region that seems impervious to change: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Grabbing the headlines were a set of new principles Obama introduced late in his speech for reframing stalled peace negotiations. His call for Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders drew a swift rebuke from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Obama meets today at the White House. Merits aside, the controversy over this oddly-timed change in U.S. policy has overshadowed the new doctrine the president meant to announce to the world: America henceforth will back reform and democracy in the region.

Conservatives predictably have hailed this as no change at all, merely a restatement of George W. Bush's "freedom agenda" for the Middle East. But there's a crucial difference: the impetus for economic and political change in the region is now coming from the ground up -- from its long-suffering people, not from Washington. In fact, by defusing tensions between the United States and the Muslim world, Obama probably made it easier for indigenous movements seeking freedom and democracy to arise in the region.

The Arab revolt is widely seen as legitimate because it is not, in fact, an American project. Obama made clear in his speech that Washington is catching up to events in the Middle East, not leading them.

It's odd that no one in the White House thought to apply the same lesson to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. If the parties to the conflict aren't themselves motivated to make peace, no amount of outside pressure from the United States, nor any set of innovative "parameters" for negotiations imported from Washington will break the deadlock.

Unfortunately, the flap over Obama's apparent revision of long-standing U.S. policy toward the conflict reinforces the myth -- fostered by Arab dictators and the many U.S. Middle East experts who have invested their careers in peace processing -- that Israeli occupation of Arab lands is the region's core "problem." Yet the region's long-suffering people are writing a new narrative that focuses not on Israel, but on the corrupt and despotic rulers who have smothered their aspirations for individual dignity, economic opportunity and self-determination.

In aligning U.S. policy with these aspirations, Obama ended the bankrupt policy of propping up friendly autocrats. He also restored the missing "d" in his strategic trinity of defense, diplomacy and development -- democracy.

The president reaffirmed his view that Muammar Gaddafi must go, and he had suitably harsh words for Iran's clerical dictatorship, which is intensifying its repression to keep an increasingly restive society under wraps. For consistency's sake, Obama insisted that pro-U.S. rulers in Yemen and Bahrain share power and respect minority rights, respectively. These, however, are easy cases -- too easy. Obama said not a word about the difficult problem of managing U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, which for good reason feels deeply threatened by the uprisings sweeping the region.

Obama also struck a jarringly false note in urging Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to "lead the transition, or get out of the way." This formulation reflects the weirdly persistent illusion among U.S. policy makers that Assad, who inherited his dictatorship, can somehow be transformed into an agent of democratic reform. In many ways, Assad is worse than his father. He turned Syria into a prime transit point for suicide terrorists en route to kill Americans and civilians in Iraq; he has subverted democracy in Lebanon and funneled arms to Hezbollah and Hamas; and, he has made Syria a virtual satrap of Iran. The administration has announced sanctions on Assad and other Syrian leaders responsible for the bloody crack-down on demonstrators, but America's interests clearly lie with regime change in Damascus.

Despite such qualms, Obama's speech at last has aligned America's values with its long-run interests in the political and economic modernization of the wider Middle East. It's a shame, though, that this strategic pivot has been obscured by a perplexing and ill-timed attempt to resuscitate Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.