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Friday, May 20, 2011

Will Barack Obama put his money where his mouth is?


US President Barack Obama delivers a speech on Mideast and North Africa policy in the Ben Franklin Room at the State Department. (Getty photo)
US President Barack Obama delivers a speech on Mideast and North Africa policy in the Ben Franklin Room at the State Department. (Getty photo)

By JAMES M. DORSEY
AL ARABIYA

The question for President Barack Obama is whether he will put his money where his mouth is in the Middle East and North Africa.
In a wide-ranging policy speech designed to lay out his policy toward a region racked by anti-government protests demanding an end to authoritarian rule and dominated by regimes unwilling to relinquish power, Mr. Obama put the United States squarely in the camp of the reformers.
Mr. Obama said all the right things but many in the Middle East and North Africa are likely to take his words with a grain of salt.

They remember Mr. Obama’s speech in Cairo two years ago that was intended to put US relations with the Arab and the Muslim world in the post-George W. Bush era on a new footing.

The confidence and hope generated by that speech has faded with the perception that Mr. Obama failed to deliver on his promises and that US policy in the region remained unchanged. Mr. Obama runs the risk that Thursday’s speech will meet the same fate.

Mr. Obama failed in the wake of his Cairo speech to pressure Israel to soften its policy toward the Palestinians and halt the building of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and seemed to be opportunistic in his support for the recent wave of anti-government protests demanding change in the region. The president was slow in swinging the US behind protesters in Tunisia and Egypt who earlier this year succeeded in toppling their authoritarian leaders and seemed to back away from siding with demonstrators in the oil-rich Gulf.

To set the record straight Mr. Obama laid out a strategy that made democratic change a cornerstone of US policy, starting with Egypt and Tunisia.

It is a strategy that builds on US principles of pluralism, democracy and human, women’s and minority rights and if implemented to the letter is likely to put the Obama administration on a collision course with many of its allies, first and foremost among which is Saudi Arabia; the Saudis have so far resisted the kind of change Mr. Obama envisions. Conspicuous by its absence was any mention of the Kingdom in the president’s 45-minute speech.

For now, conservative Arab leaders are likely to take a wait and see attitude to assess whether Mr. Obama’s speech is just another exercise in the rhetoric in which the president excels or whether it really marks a substantive change of US policy. Few in the region believe it really does. One yardstick will be how far Mr. Obama goes in his pledge to support non-governmental organizations irrespective of whether they are sanctioned by governments in the region.

“Real reform does not come at the ballot box alone. Through our efforts we must support those basic rights to speak your mind and access information. We will support open access to the Internet, and the right of journalists to be heard—whether it’s a big news organization or a lone blogger. In the 21st century, information is power, the truth cannot be hidden, and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens,” Mr. Obama said.

To indicate the sincerity of his words, Mr. Obama expressed his sharpest criticism yet of the crackdown on protesters in Bahrain, a country that is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and imported troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help put down an uprising by the Shia majority.

Mr. Obama’s failure in recent months to publicly condemn the crackdown prompted widespread criticism from reformers and protesters in the region. Mr. Obama threw a bone to Bahraini and Saudi leaders by acknowledging that Iran had sought to exploit the turmoil in Bahrain and by refraining from referring to the Saudi intervention on the island.

“Nevertheless, we have insisted publically and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail. The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis,” the president said.

Mr. Obama sought to provide an economic incentive for Middle Eastern and North African nations to embrace political and economic change by announcing a host of economic initiatives, including a $2 billion facility to support private investment; the refocusing of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to provide support for democratic transition and economic modernization in the Middle East and North Africa; a trade and investment partnership that would integrate the region with US and European markets as it has in Europe; $1 billion in debt relief for Egypt and another $1 billion in loans to fund infrastructure and job creation.

It was not immediately clear that Mr. Obama’s economic incentives would be sufficient to entice economic elites across the region to surrender their privileges and vested interests in favor of a greater economic openness.

Similarly Mr. Obama’s statement that moving forward with peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians is “more urgent than ever” is likely to do little to persuade many in the Middle East and North Africa that US policy in the region has fundamentally changed.

If anything, it will reinforce perceptions that the United States firmly sides with Israel. Although he called on Israel to act “boldly to advance a lasting peace,” reiterated support for an independent Palestinian state and recognized the need to define the state’s borders based on the 1967 lines, Mr. Obama sided with Israel in insisting that the state should be demilitarized—a demand that has repeatedly been rejected by the Palestinians.

Mr. Obama will have an opportunity to gauge response to his remarks and perhaps refine them when he meets on Friday with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu on Friday and addresses on Sunday AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby.

Few in the region expect that he will respond to calls from the Middle East and North Africa for a more equitable balancing of Israeli and Palestinian views of a resolution to their dispute. Mr. Netanyahu was quick to reject Mr. Obama’s reference to the 1967 borders—a reference to Israel borders prior to its occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Mr. Obama presented the wave of anti-government protests in the region as a historic opportunity for the United States. While he certainly did not expect his speech to be all things to all people, Mr. Obama will have to demonstrate that he is serious about his statement directed to Israel that “the dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation” and that the US firmly sides with the winds of change in the region. To do so, would take US relations with many nations in the Middle East and North Africa on a rollercoaster ride in the short term but reassert US credibility and influence in the long term.

That is a tall order, one that Mr. Obama may find difficult to sell at home.

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