Obama Lays Out U.S. Policy on Arab World Amid Uprisings

BY Larisa Epatko  May 19, 2011 at 1:28 PM EDT

With a backdrop of continuing anti-government protests in the Arab world and criticism from some corners over a perceived uneven U.S. response, President Obama said in a major policy speech Thursday that the U.S. would use its influence and economic power to support the region’s transitions to democracy.

“Our message is simple: if you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States,” he said.

The president said that for decades, the United States has pursued a set of interests, including countering terrorism, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, securing the flow of commerce and security in the region, and standing up for Israel’s security along with pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.

And while the U.S. would continue to do these things, “we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind,” he said.

President Obama also acknowledged that “we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to impose regime change by force — no matter how well-intended it may be.”

So instead, the U.S. would support the movements toward democracy and work to advance regional stability by:

  • Helping to build networks of entrepreneurs, expand exchanges in education, foster cooperation in science and technology, and combat disease;
  • Asking the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to present a plan at the G-8 summit next week on a way to stabilize and modernize the economies of Tunisia and Egypt;
  • Relieving “a democratic” Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt, and working to increase investment there;
  • Working with Congress to create Enterprise Funds to invest in Tunisia and Egypt, similar to those aimed at helping Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin wall; and
  • Launching a Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa, including working with the EU on increasing trade with the region.

President Obama also brought up the stalled peace process between Palestinians and Israelis, and emphasized a two-state solution:

“The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

In addition, he described the removal of Osama bin Laden as a blow to al-Qaida, though he said it was already experiencing a drain on support:

“Bin Laden was no martyr. He was a mass murderer who offered a message of hate. Bin Laden and his murderous vision won some adherents. But even before his death, al Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life.

“By the time we found bin Laden, al Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands.”

The world is witnessing “extraordinary change” in the Middle East and North Africa, President Obama said. “Two leaders have stepped aside. More may follow.”

In Libya, he said NATO had to intervene to protect its people. And in Syria, “people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way.”

On Bahrain, the president cited the Persian Gulf nation’s long-term partnership with the U.S., but said the “mass arrests and brute force” taking place there are at odds with its citizens’ rights and will not dispel the calls for reforms.

“The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail,” he said.

Maria McFarland, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Washington director, said this was the first time the president has spoken pointedly about Bahrain’s repression of the opposition. “In the past, the State Department and White House have been very limited in their statements about what was happening in Bahrain,” which is a strong U.S. ally and home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, she said.

Even though the government’s forces are not firing on people in the street, its tactics are just as harmful as other crackdowns in the region, she said, and the U.S. response could be viewed as a double-standard favoring its allies.

McFarland said additional measures, besides economic ones, must be taken to help the region. For example, Egypt needs to repeal the emergency law and trials of civilians in military court and reforming the state security agencies, she said, adding, “These are some of the things we’re going to keep monitoring going forward.”

Aaron David Miller, public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said President Obama tried to take a “Goldilocks approach” by toughening the rhetoric on repressive regimes, but not calling for leaders in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen to step down.

Similarly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Miller said, the president “broke new ground” by saying lines between the two territories should be based on 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps, but he didn’t fully address the status of Jerusalem and right of Palestinian refugees to return.

“There’s no initiative that’s going to follow this. There’s no way you’re going to get [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas to negotiate on the basis of June 1967,” said Miller. So “I don’t see this as a major advance; I don’t see it as a major blow.”

We’ll have more reaction, including an on-the-ground report from Bahrain, on Thursday’s NewsHour. You can view all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.