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

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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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.

Foreign policy advocates are waiting to see how the president describes his approach towards the various branches of the Islamist movement, which include the now-leaderless al Qaeda network, as well as the less-violent but better-organized Muslim Brotherhood movement, which is set to gain significant policy power in Egypt after the scheduled September elections. Advocates want to know how he views the struggle between the oil-rich Sunni states — such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia — and Iran, which is led by Muslims in the rival Shia sect of Islam, is developing nuclear weapons and is funding proxy terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah.

Iran is pushing for a greater influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S.-backed, elected governments are trying to balance their desire for independence against the security benefits ensured by allied U.S. ground forces. This week, Iraq’s prime minister suggested that a small number of U.S. troops should stay to help Iraqi troops stabilize the country’s security.

The president “has always viewed the future of the region through the prism of democratization and the yearning of the people … for greater political freedom, participation in their government, [and a] desire for responsive governments that address their grievances,” Carney said Friday.

“Some of the governments who have responded inappropriately [to the protests] …. are doing it in the name of preserving stability, and yet they are only creating greater instability in their country and the region through their reactions,” he added. When asked about the Syrian government’s attacks on demonstrators, Carney said ”we strongly, in no uncertain terms, condemn the violence.”

Obama’s 2009 speech, announced and received with much fanfare, was quickly made obsolete by events, including the removal of dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia, the emergence of uprisings in Syria and Libya, and the stabilization of Iraq’s government. The speech also contained several errors and highly contentions claims. For example, it gave Muslims credit for inventing printing and the compass, even through European Christians developed the first successful printing machines and the compass was initially developed in China. The speech also claimed “nearly 7 million” Muslims lived in the U.S. But several careful U.S. surveys, including one conducted by the Pew Research Center, show the population at below 3 million. Only Islamist groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, pegged the population at 7 million.