At the US State Department in Washington, DC, President Obama delivered what the White House billed as a major address on what role the US should play in the post-“Arab Spring” world, in which he pledged US economic help for Arab countries that embrace democracy and for the first time said any future Israel/Palestine peace agreement should be generally based on the 1967 borders.
Invoking the 1967 borders will be a controversial move for the president; among some supporters of Israel those borders are an anachronism and will make the Jewish state less secure. Invoking them, say some supporters if Israel, is buying into a Palestinian notion of what a two-state solution should look like at the same time Palestinian domestic politics are consumed with the Fatah leadership attempting reconciliation with Hamas, which the US considers a terrorist group. Some in Congress want to block the Palestinian Authority from receiving any US aid because of this reconciliation.
Moreover, the timing of this new policy pronouncement by the president is pointed; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit the White House tomorrow.
More broadly, the president said he was speaking because the US needed to address the Arab Spring, “the forces that are driving it, and how we can respond in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security.”
“The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds,” the president said, beyond traditional American interests such as counterterrorism and counterproliferation.
The speech comes amidst some international criticism about the American policy incoherence and inconsistency, with President Obama having pushed for the removal of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who acquiesced, and Libyan dictator Moammar Qadaffi, who hasn’t, but not for the removal of other dictators who oppress their citizens and oppose human rights.
No explanation was forthcoming, though the president suggested that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom he said “has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens” demonstrating for democracy, “now has a choice: he can lead that transition or get out of the way.”
As a general policy, the president stated that the United States “opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region,” an assertion greeted with applause by the diplomats and State Department officials in the audience.
He noted that such opposition has limits. The US “cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people,” he said. “And 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-intentioned it may be.”
In addition to longtime US nemeses Syria, Libya, and Iran the president cited allies Yemen and Bahrain as countries that need to begin ushering in the democratic reforms seen in Tunisia and Egypt. “Let's remember that the first peaceful protests in the region were in the streets of Tehran,” said the president, who was criticized at that time for not saying enough to protest the Iranian repression at the time.
He added that “if America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that at times our friends in the region have not all reacted” in accordance “with the principles that I've outlined today…That is true in Yemen, where President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power. And that's true today in Bahrain.”
Repeating the Bahraini government claim that “Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there” the president said that the regime’s policies of “mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens…Such steps will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. 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.”
The more substantive components of the speech included tangible offers of economic assistance as part of a US effort to promote reform and democracy, with the effort beginning in longtime US ally Egypt and Tunisia, “the vanguard of this democratic wave,” the president said.
“Both nations can set a strong example through free and fair elections, a vibrant civil society, accountable and effective democratic institutions, and responsible regional leadership,” he said. The president said that at next week’s G-8 summit in Paris, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund would present plans to help stabilize and modernize those countries’ economies. Working with other investment entities, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the US would seek to help create economic investment opportunities in Egypt while the US would forgive $1 billion in Egyptian debt.
President Obama discussed Israel in part of the speech where he noted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “has cast a shadow over the region” and pushed both sides to make concessions and return to the negotiating table, saying to Israel that with a rising Palestinian population west of the Jordan River, the “status quo is unsustainable.” The president said “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.”
Mr. Obama also condemned Arab “efforts to delegitimize Israel” including a planned September vote at the United Nations to “isolate” the Jewish state. “Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection,” he said. “Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.”
Walking through the Arab Spring, the president invoked the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose fruit cart was confiscated by police, setting off protests throughout the country.
“There are times in the course of history when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has been building up for years,” the president said, comparing Bouazizi’s actions to “the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a king, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat.”
The president called for women’s rights and tolerance, saying that “Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.”
He cautioned that however much the world is now used to “24-hour news cycles and constant communication…it will be years before this story reaches its end.”