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

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

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.

The speech also showed an 180-degree reversal in policy towards Iran. Prior to his election, Obama promised to open negotiations with Tehran’s theocracy. After his election, he stood silent as Iranians protested the country’s election and were attacked by the government’s security services. But Obama said today that “the first peaceful protests were in the streets of Tehran, where the government brutalized women and men, and threw innocent people into jail.”

To goose economic development in Egypt and Tunisia, Obama offered a $2 billion package of aid and loan-forgiveness, plus advice and support from government-backed experts at international funding-agencies, think-tanks and universities.

Though Obama focused on Egypt and Tunisia, he also pushed Bahrain’s rulers to negotiate with the population of the tiny, oil-rich country. The leaders belong to the Sunni sect of Islam, and the majority of the population identifies as members of the Shia sect. The country hosts a U.S. Navy base, and has been threatened repeatedly by the Iranian government, which declares itself to be a supported of Shia believers.

But Obama did not discuss Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, which have strongly supported the Bahrain government’s crackdown on Shia protestors.

The portion of the speech that was focused on the Arab countries was welcomed by supporters of Bush’s policies. “Today’s speech at the State Department marks Barack Obama’s emergence as a full-fledged, born-again neocon firmly in the George W. Bush mold,” gushed Max Boot, a supporter of the Iraq campaign, and a writer for Commentary, which focuses on issues of concern to American Jews.

But commentators were sharply divided over the last portion of the speech, which discussed the Israel-Arab impasse.

Even as Obama said Arabs should recognize Israel as a Jewish state  — “a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples” — he also said he wanted Israel to give up control of the West Bank to a Palestinian government even before a deal is struck on the two most difficult issues in the conflict.

Those two issues are the disposition of Jerusalem and of the descendants of Arabs who fled Israel in 1948. Neither issue is easily resolved and any deal that was limited to borders would not end the conflict between Israelis and Arabs.

Jerusalem is the historical and current capital city of Israel, and Israeli voters strongly favor its retention. That support is partly echoed in domestic U.S. politics, where Jews’ overwhelming support for Obama in 2008 has fallen sharply. Obama’s outreach to the Jewish community includes a meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he visits Washington May 22 to May 24, and a May 21 speech to the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The disposition of the refugees’ descendants is also a very difficult problem. Palestinian leaders, and the vast majority of Palestinian adults, say they want the stateless descendants of the 1948 refugees to be allowed to settle in Israel, because that would give Israel a Muslim Arab majority and so end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. No Palestinian politician has dared to oppose this demand, dubbed “the right of return.” Obama did not reject this Arab claim.

The president’s decision to endorse reestablishment of the 1967 border will reduce Arabs’ incentives to bargain, bolster Arab claims that violence and intransigence are better tools than negotiation, spur demands at the United Nations to establish an Arab state in the area around Jerusalem, and also stymie the president’s own hopes for a peace-deal, said critics.

The declaration also voided a commitment made by the U.S. in 2004 that it would not publicly back the 1967 borders if Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Subsequently, Israel withdrew, Hamas established control of the area and then launched many rocket-attacks into Israel, and now the U.S. commitment has been abandoned, said critics, including columnist Charles Krauthammer.

In response, the office of Israel’s prime minister called for the U.S. to reaffirm the 2004 agreement. “Among other things, those commitments relate to Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines,” the prime minister’s office said.

But even on the Arab-Israeli talks, on which Obama has spent so much time and credibility, Obama criticized Arabs. He ended his speech with a demand that Arabs make “a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past, and the promise of the future.”