Five months into a wave of transformation across the Arab world, President Barack Obama plans to offer a fresh blueprint for the U.S. role in the Middle East and North Africa at a moment both defining and uncertain.
The seminal events in the region and the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs give Obama an inflection point to seize what his spokesman called a “moment of opportunity” in a speech tomorrow at the State Department.
The address carries risks for Obama as he weighs in on a still evolving upheaval that has turned bloody in Libya, Syria and Yemen. He will also be speaking to audiences that range from the Arab masses protesting in the streets to government leaders in the region to domestic critics of the U.S. military intervention in Libya and continued presence in Afghanistan.
“The president has to balance America’s support for popular uprisings and demands for more representative and accountable governments in the Middle East with the fundamental interest in maintaining regional stability,” said Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
It was almost two years ago in Cairo that Obama called for a “new beginning” with the Muslim world. His efforts at outreach haven’t translated into more favorable views of the U.S. or of Obama, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The U.S. president received his lowest marks for his handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the March 21-April 26 survey showed.
While White House press secretary Jay Carney described the speech as “much broader” than just a discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama will have to include a substantive look at that situation, said Jon Alterman, a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff.
“I don’t think he can give a major Middle East speech and not touch on a core issue, this conflict,” said Alterman, now director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. With the resignation last week of his special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, Obama “has to say more than the minimum,” Alterman said.
Obama’s address is bracketed by White House meetings with King Abdullah II of Jordan yesterday and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 20. Netanyahu said this week that clashes with Arab demonstrators along Israel’s borders with the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip show that changes sweeping the Arab world pose risks for Israel.
Divided on Approach
The president’s advisers have been divided about how to address the stalled peace process, said an administration official who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak about internal administration matters.
One side, represented by Vice President Joe Biden, national security adviser Tom Donilon and Dennis Ross, a special adviser on the Persian Gulf, has argued that Obama should avoid specifics in his remarks and that the coming election season makes it too difficult for the U.S. to pursue a peace settlement now, the official said.
Others, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, want Obama to present a plan that lays out a settlement in clear terms and with actionable steps, the official said.
Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan, said Middle East upheaval has raised the stakes for the administration.
“The Arab uprisings have made movement on the Arab-Israeli conflict even more important because the United States cannot pursue a policy that sides with the Egyptians and Libyans, that sides with the people in their search for freedom, and not with the Palestinians,” said Muasher, now a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington policy group.
After meeting with Abdullah yesterday, Obama said the turmoil in the region means “it’s more vital than ever that both Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table.”
The anti-government protests in the region have helped push oil prices up 41 percent over the past year on concern that major oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia may be affected. Crude for June delivery rose as much as $1.09 to $98 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
As the uprisings toppled rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and shook the governments in Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, Obama has said it is up to the people of the Arab world to determine their futures.
The administration’s calibrated responses to each country have alienated some Arab partners. Obama called for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, a long-time ally, to step down. He has yet to call for regime change in Syria, where the government of President Bashar al-Assad has violently cracked down on protesters.
In Cairo, Obama “promised a new beginning,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, said in an interview. “Now it’s time for him to suggest a new beginning with the Arab people, not just the governments.”
Challenge with Syria
The U.S. response to Syria presents a particular challenge for the administration, said Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator and State Department official who is now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.
“Yes, there is a limited amount that can be done in Syria, given staunch opposition from China and Russia in the United Nations Security Council, but still, the differences have been glaring even when taking into account that each situation is different,” Miller said.
Obama’s speech, which will be translated simultaneously from English into Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew, will also cover economic and political reforms emerging out of the turmoil, Carney said.
“The administration sees these events as a turning point in history,” said Malka. “And they’re trying to figure out what role the U.S. should play in it.”