President Barack Obama's speech on U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa on Thursday, May 19th comes in the midst of a historic transformation in the region with broad implications for U.S.-Muslim world relations. The death of Osama bin Laden and the Arab Spring offer new challenges to the Obama administration and the EU to restore and strengthen U.S.-Muslim world relations. However, it will require an alternative framework for a failed decades-long paradigm. The challenge for American (and European) policymakers will be to move beyond equating protection of national interests with the stability and security of authoritarian regimes to a policy based on the pursuit of our national interests within America's principles of self-determination, democracy and human rights.
Much has changed since the Muslim world responded enthusiastically to Obama's election and Cairo speech. Initially, major polls, like that of Gallup, reported a significant spike in attitudes towards the U.S. However, many soon perceived a gap between Obama's vision and rhetoric vs. the administration's failure to deliver on his New Way Forward. There seemed little difference between Bush and Obama policies on closing Guantanamo and introduction of military courts, the significant increase of troops in Afghanistan, his backtracking and retreat from his firm stand on an end to illegal settlements in Palestine-Israel, and continued support for authoritarian regimes.
As a result, Obama faces a much more skeptical audience this time around that will not be easily wooed simply by better rhetoric. Credibility and respect requires fairness in policies in addition to culturally sensitive language.
Bin Laden's death symbolized the failure of al Qaeda and transnational terrorism to achieve their goals of mobilization and development of a mass movement to topple regimes and fight the Western presence and intervention. The Arab Spring signaled that failure when a diverse broad-based mass movement that did not look to bin Laden's model of violence and terrorism but rather opted for a non-violent populist uprising demanding greater democratization.
In some ways, the Arab Spring symbolizes the failure of both al Qaeda and America. Ironically, both were partially responsible/complicit in creating the conditions for Arab repression: the U.S. either by supporting unpopular authoritarian regimes and al Qaeda by providing them with the fuel to repress their populations through emergency laws and fear. As a result, Arabs looked to neither discredited parties for their freedom. Instead, for the first time in a generation, they looked inward for answers.
The Obama administration, like most experts and Arab governments, were caught off guard by the upheaval and rapid fall of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. It initially seemed hesitant, trying to determine which way the wind was blowing, to walk both sides of street, expressing support for long time allies but concern about regime violence and human rights. Having now responded more effectively, it is challenged to more clearly and forcefully set out the principles of its policy: (1) that in the popular struggle against autocratic rulers the U.S. will always stand on the side of freedom, democracy, and human rights. Thus, the brutality not only of Bashar Asad and Muammar Gaddafi but also of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and the Al Khalifa in Bahrain will need to unequivocally be condemned and (2) that the U.S. will respect the will of the people and not interfere in the internal affairs of newly-formed Arab democratic governments. This would include acceptance of mainstream Islamists, like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia's Ennahada, participation in elections and in government.
Resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains the more difficult and seemingly intractable issue. U.S. policymakers face newly empowered Arab publics (and elected governments) that will be more independent and critical of Israel's policies and the administration's perceived inability to stand up to the Netanyahu government. If, as the administration has indicated, it wishes to re-engage the peace process, it will have to move from a peace "process" to real and substantive action and consequences. Obama will need to return to and fulfill his promises in Cairo regarding illegal Israeli settlements. If Netanyahu remains intransigent and no progress is made by September, Obama needs to fulfill his promise by supporting the UN initiative for a Palestinian state within 1967 borders.
As Defense Secretary Robert Gates has noted, Osama bin Laden's death could be a "game-changer" in Afghanistan. President Obama should take this opportunity to meet his political promise to begin a draw down of troops in July, signaling the beginning of an American withdrawal from Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai and the Pakistan government's recent indication of a willingness to jointly work to bring a negotiated settlement through peace and reconciliation talks with the Taliban should be strongly encouraged by the administration.
President Obama cannot be expected to address all of the above issues in his speech on May 19. But he will need to effectively respond to the question: "Where will the US go from here?" by setting out a new US framework for US-Muslim world relations and announcing specific policies and actions to achieve his administration's goals.