Obama's insistence that US policy in the Middle East support,
rather than thwart, popular yearnings for self-rule is a warning to
autocrats in the region - and marks an 'update' since his Cairo
Five months into the Arab Spring, President Obama is honing his
Middle East strategy with an update to the "new beginning" he
proposed for US-Arab relations nearly two years ago in Cairo.
Among the points the president is underscoring: Patience with
tyrants is running short - even in cases, like Syria, where fear of
an unknown alternative has moderated diplomatic pressures. The
Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not isolated from the changes
sweeping the region but demands a solution all the more because of
it. And political actors in the new Middle East will be judged more
on their actions than on affiliations and past positions.
This last point signifies that, in a region that largely rejected
the ideology of Osama bin Laden even before his death at US hands
earlier this month, political Islam will not be rejected by the US
out of hand.
In a much-anticipated speech in Washington May 19, the president
insisted that US policy in the Middle East will be designed to
support - rather than thwart - the same popular yearnings for self-
rule and prosperity that built America and produced what are now
Gone is the tipping of the hat to Arab autocrats that has
accompanied decades of American calls for expanded political
freedoms and economic opportunities in the region. "After decades of
accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to
pursue the world as it should be," Mr. Obama said. "It will be the
policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and
to support transitions to democracy."
The change in two years was striking. In Cairo, Obama spoke with
one of America's favorite autocrats, Hosni Mubarak, at his side. Now
the US president spotlighted the young protesters of Cairo's Tahrir
Square who chased Mr. Mubarak from power.
Yet even among supporters of Obama's vision of US policy toward
an upended Middle East, the concern is that the lofty rhetoric won't
be easily or quickly translated into results on the Arab street.
"This speech wasn't like Cairo, which was a message to connect
with people in the Arab world. This was about strategies for the
region as it undergoes profound change," says Bruce Jentleson,
professor of public policy and political science at Duke University
in Durham, N.C. "This had to come with more specifics and will have
to be backed up with action."
Other more-critical regional analysts say Obama's message may
barely register among the drivers of the Arab Spring - who had
already decided that the political change is about them and has
little to do with the US or any other outside power.
"There's a feeling in the Arab world that Arabs are having to
take matters into their own hands, so in this situation [Obama's
speech] is not going to have that much impact," says Marwan Muasher,
vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace in Washington.
Still, Obama offered some nuances and innovations in terms of US
policy that are likely to have an effect in the region. In four
areas Obama signaled how a closer dovetailing of American values and
policies is likely to translate into action:
Egypt and Tunisia
The president announced that Egypt and Tunisia, where popular
movements have already removed entrenched leaders, will become
something akin to demonstration projects for how economic
partnerships will be advanced to underpin both economic and
political reforms. A $4 billion package of measures for the two
countries - mostly involving existing programs and funding - is to
include $1 billion in debt relief for Egypt to be redirected to
encourage economic development.
Obama is signaling that the days of waiting for President Bashar
al-Assad to stop the repression of his own people and open up to
dialogue with his political opposition are numbered. …