Obama channels George W. Bush and talks tough to friends and foes in Middle East speech

President Barack Obama’s speech on Middle East policy combined a notably hard-line toward allies Israel and Bahrain, favorable references towards President George W. Bush’s policies, and unsentimental and unflattering depiction of Arab economies, societies and hatreds toward Israel.

The sharpest reaction to the speech came in response to Obama’s statement that Israel should return to its pre-1967 borders (with agreed land swaps), prior to any Arab acceptance of a Jewish state on lands that are regarded by most Arabs as Muslim territory, dubbed the ‘umma.’ The statement, which some see as reversing U.S. policy, will reduce Arabs’ incentive to negotiate and leave Israel with less reason to trust U.S. committments, said critics.

The speech marks a major rhetorical and strategic shift from Obama’s 2009 speech to Middle Eastern Muslims, during which he repeatedly flattered his audience, demeaned his predecessor and offered little of substance.

Since that 2009 speech, the people he was speaking to have deposed two dictatorships and revolted against at least four others, while the talks that he wanted to take place between Israelis and Arabs collapsed once Arabs raised their demands to match the president’s public opposition against Israeli home-building near Jerusalem.

This time around, the president didn’t repeat widespread yet unsupported local claims about Muslims’ tolerance of minorities or of Islamic scientific accomplishments, but instead declared that “Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed [by Sunni rulers] in Bahrain…[and] if you take out oil exports, this region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland.”

He even criticized Arab culture, attacking “the patronage that distributes wealth based on tribe or sect.”

On Iraq, he combined low-key criticism of President George W. Bush’s decision to install a democracy in place of Saddam Hussein, with an implied promise to support Iraq’s elected government. “In Iraq, we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy…[it] is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress [and] we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.” The language suggests that the U.S. would accept a widely-expected Iraqi government request for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq as a shield against Iranian advances.

Obama’s depiction of Iraq as a model for democracy also echoed one of Bush’s reasons for overthrowing Hussein. “Leaders in the region speak of a new Arab charter that champions internal reform, greater politics participation, economic openness, and free trade,” Bush declared in a 2003 speech to the American Enterprise Institute. “From Morocco to Bahrain and beyond, nations are taking genuine steps toward politics reform [and] a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region,” Bush declared.

Obama’s speech also included a back-handed endorsement of Bush’s aggressive counter-offensive into Iraq following the 9/11 attacks. Bush’s offensive pushed al Qaeda to respond, but its many civilian-killing suicide attacks in Iraq and Jordan wrecked its support among Arabs. “The overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life…al Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end,” even before Osama bin Laden was killed, Obama said.