Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Gauging Obama’s Mideast Policy Speech

by Steven A. Cook
May 20, 2011

Obama is seen on a television in the background of a barber shop near Ramallah (Mohamad Torokman/Courtesy Reuters)

Obama is seen on a television in the background of a barber shop near Ramallah (Mohamad Torokman/Courtesy Reuters)

Below is my reaction to President Obama’s Mideast policy speech. You can also find analysis from my colleagues, Robert Danin and Elliott Abrams, on cfr.org.

Regardless of what his administration’s policy had been prior to the Arab revolutions–and there is a case to be made that it was stronger on democracy promotion than critics suggest–events in the Middle East compelled President Barack Obama to take to the podium on May 19. Still, the president’s declaration that the United States “must proceed with a sense of humility” was important. It indicates that his administration understands both the limits and challenges that lie ahead for the United States in the Arab world. Indeed, Washington does not have a lot of leverage to shape the trajectories of countries currently undergoing change. Also, although he did not spell it out explicitly, the president’s cautionary words suggest that he and his advisors understand that U.S. policy has the potential to harm democratic transitions in the region.

The president was correct to emphasize what the United States can do to help Egypt–the largest Arab country and a longtime regional bellwether. The single most important initiative to help Cairo in the short run is debt relief. To be sure, the $1 billion that will be forgiven is a mere fraction of Egypt’s overall $190 billion liability, but the administration is signaling to the international community that it too should help refloat an Egyptian economy that has experienced a significant decline in the three months since Hosni Mubarak’s fall. It would have been better had Obama sought to relieve Egypt of its entire bilateral debt burden–if only symbolically–but the present political realities of Washington will not allow it.

More curious was the president’s statements on Syria. The administration has sharpened its rhetoric on the Assad regime in the last week and took the step of applying sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other senior regime figures, but Obama left open the possibility of a solution that includes the Syrian leader. Some observers have argued that if Assad does all that Obama demands, it will bring about the end of the regime anyway so it doesn’t matter if the president calls on the Syrian leader “to lead a transition, or get out of the way.” If, in fact, it does not matter, then the president should forcefully declare Assad beyond the pale and help create an environment toward his regime’s end. It seems that the administration has made much of the possibility of instability in a post-Assad Syria and taken Turkish equities in that country into account at the expense of broader American strategic interests. That is a mistake.

There is certainly the possibility of instability in Syria should Assad fall, but there was also that potential in post-Mubarak Egypt, yet the president was relatively quick to call for Mubarak to heed the demands of the Egyptian people. The end of Assad’s regime would also mean the likely end of the Syrian-Iranian axis, which would benefit the United States and the region by making it significantly harder for Tehran to influence regional politics.

Finally, the president’s call for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on Israel’s 1967 border with land swaps may have unnerved some Israelis and some of Israel’s supporters, but the speech overall does not fundamentally depart from previous ideas and formulations for resolving the conflict. Given that Israel and the Palestinian problem is the most important metric by which Arabs judge the United States, Obama’s words likely fell flat in the Middle East.

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