President Barack Obama's Mideast speech was wide-ranging and included some strong elements. The president spoke well about how we view democracy--including not only majority rule but minority rights and the rule of law. The president's words about Israel's security needs were powerful as well, in essence tying any possible Israeli military withdrawal from the West Bank to actual, demonstrable Palestinian security performance rather than mere promises.
But other parts of the speech were less impressive, and two deserve note. First, the president simply rewrote history when it came to supporting democracy in the Middle East. He claimed to have done so from the start, with his Cairo speech. But in fact, his administration's policy was engagement--engagement with regimes, not peoples, including the repressive regimes in Iran and Syria. His reaction to events in Iran in June 2009, and more recently in Tunisia and then Egypt, was cautious and slow. Perhaps this passage was an effort to avoid saying what is more accurate: that the Bush Freedom Agenda turned out to be right, and his own administration had been wrong to jettison it.
Senator Marco Rubio:
“I’m pleased the President used his unique platform to address America and the Middle East during this critical moment in history. We need to back up our words with actions and policies. Our actions should leave no doubt that America is on the side of those who strive for freedom, and it should always be clear that we’re against despots like Assad who run their countries like they are living centuries in the past. To continue to hold hope for democratic reform to come under Assad ignores the reality that he is a brutal tyrant. Assad has lost the legitimacy to rule and must go now.
“Unfortunately, the President’s reference to Israel’s 1967 borders marks a step back in the peace process, as the U.S. must not pre-determine the outcome of direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Our focus should be in encouraging direct and meaningful negotiations between the sides, and to continue playing an important role as a security guarantor in the region.
“Everywhere we look in the Middle East, there is unrest as millions of Arabs have finally had enough and are demanding the freedoms that have been denied to them for far too long. America must always be a clear force for freedom that works with willing allies and partners to uphold and protect democratic values wherever they are threatened.”
On the whole, a reasonable speech. It wasn’t a vision, it wasn’t passionate, but it was about what America can do in the region. Yes, it was bad in that it ignored Saudi Arabia (about which more later). Yes, it probably over-emphasized Israel, but the swaps idea was nothing new. And calling out Hamas and Fatah was important. The suggestion that Assad still has the choice to reform and stay seemed out of place. But on the whole, the promise of more U.S. commitment to the people of the region, while Bush-like, is nonetheless worthy. The president has needed to speak out and for six months he has all but ignored the Middle East. Now he has spoken and soon the American people and the world can measure whether his administration walks his talk.