Cairo, take two: President Obama to deliver second major Middle East speech

The president will deliver a second major speech on the Middle East to reset his foreign policy following the changes that have swept through the region since his much-lauded June 2009 Cairo speech.

The contents of the planned Thursday speech are being closely held by administration officials, who only offer generalities, both off and on the record. “I’m sure that it will be a fairly sweeping and comprehensive speech about what we’ve all been privileged enough to witness since January,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday. “I’m not going to say too much because I obviously want the president to have the field,” he added.

The timing of Obama’s address is puzzling, because turmoil in the Arab countries — dubbed “the Arab Spring” — may rapidly invalidate any speech, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the president of the GOP-affiliated American Action Forum, a libertarian-minded think-tank. “We’re still in spring, we’re not even in summer — why do you really want to talk in the middle of that?”

The rapid pace of change was underlined Friday, when the president’s envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations resigned, citing personal reasons. The envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, announced he was stepping down shortly before the president’s scheduled meeting with Israel’s visiting prime minister.

The president is the chief author of the policies and words that will go into the the speech, which is to be delivered at the U.S. Department of State, said administration officials.

He “has really been the central intellectual force in these decisions, in many cases, designing the approaches,” Thomas E. Donilon, the White House’s national security adviser, told the New York Times. The same article  reported that the president “often surfs the blogs of experts on Arab affairs or regional news sites to get a local flavor for events … [and] has sounded out prominent journalists like Fareed Zakaria of Time magazine and CNN and Thomas L. Friedman … [and] ordered staff members to study transitions in 50 to 60 countries.”

The president should use his official staff to gather needed information, said Holtz-Eakin, who served as director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2003 to 2005. “That’s why they’re there. [He should] ask them, and they’ll go find out,” he said.

Obama’s emphasis on his personal role creates political risks. For example, Obama overrode his advisers and pushed for the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February, partly because he wanted to aid Westernized activists, including Google executive Wael Ghonim, the New York Times’ report said. But Ghonim has since been sidelined by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group, and has signed a contract to write a book.

The staff studies, according to the New York Times, concluded that a Syrian transfer of power may mimic Romania, where public protests prompted top officials to shoot the country’s dictator in 1989, and that Egypt’s developing revolution is best compared to revolutions in South Korea, the Philippines and Chile. However, Egypt’s history and culture has been deeply shaped by the imposition of Islam in 639, when jihadis swept aside the Christian rulers. In contrast, South Korea, the Philippines and Chile were effectively ruled by Western countries as their democratic institutions emerged.