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Obama’s Middle East Address: 2011 Edition

May 19, 2011

A girls’ school in Garden City, Cairo. 

Two years ago I was en route to Cairo just as Obama was stepping to a podium at Cairo University to make his groundbreaking address to the Arab world. I arrived hours after the speech, and though little had changed, all that mattered was that he had selected Cairo as the location to make the speech. It re-affirmed the city’s role as capital of the region, despite years of stagnation.

Now, from Washington, nearly two years later, Hillary Clinton followed by Obama, made remarks on the state of the region and the state of US foreign policy there. Today’s speech was markedly different, as so very much has changed. Two years ago, Obama met with Hosni Mubarak. Today, Mubarak is shuttling between prison and hospital.

The most assuring parts of Obama’s speech were largely those that pointed out the obvious. Namely, the fact there will be “good days and bad days” and that change will be both swift and gradual. The depth and breadth of change witnessed in the last six months across the region had been seen in sixty years. But that can’t and shouldn’t necessarily become the norm. The arc of revolution, the trajectory towards democracy, is so often taken for granted. Wholesale removal of the prior regime, adaption of democratic principles and free economic policies and the like, is not always possible. Not even always desirable, still. But the point is that dramatic and swift change a la 2000-2008 era of Mideast policy is over. That doesn’t work.

Secondly, less obvious but less reassuring was Obama’s affirmation of US core interests in the region; stopping the spread of terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, enabling commerce, creating a climate of security and standing up for Israel. While none of these core interests could really be cast into doubt, the newest component of the US’s core interests to be unveiled (though it wasn’t so clearly stated) was the need to protect the rights of citizens over their dictators, and the all-important protection of free speech and freedom of demonstration and the stand against violence used on civilians by their governments.

Obama wouldn’t have said this two years ago. He just wouldn’t have. And the question is, how much does this new core interest conflict with the far older, existing ones? Where will the line be crossed? What sort of free speech or demonstration in Gaza, or on the Gaza/Egypt border will be allowed before an principle of security or protection of Israel takes priority? Certain interests will always be elevated above others at certain moments. This is just a fact of any foreign policy. And it doesn’t indicate any kind of contradiction or hypocrisy. But where is the line? Only events and time, as they unfold, will tell. Any time a new part of policy is introduced, this is invariably the case. With an issue as contentious as Middle East policy, it’s a lot stickier. The shift was clear as early as late January, as Obama and the administration attempted to look the part of Mubarak’s muse while also attempting to navigate the rapidly changing environment of protest in Egypt. So cried out that he was too timid, too reluctant, to embrace the winds of change. I was among those at one point–and whether it was deliberate or coincidental, taking a more gradual, less severe, approach, seemed to pay off.

Obama continued with his tone of idealism, too. He announced that he sought to question whether one “pursue world as it is, or as it should be.” That’s all fine and good. And that’s a lot of what we heard on the campaign trail. But, if it is true, if it is genuine, then this marks a watershed moment for Mideast policy, because so much of what has been done the last 40 years or so has been in the interest of keeping the world as it is. Because that was safe. Because that was reliable.

Most of that safety and reliability was tossed out in February. Might as well toss that policy, too.

And finally, I hesitate to even mention Obama’s agreement to work on 1967 borders, because, quite frankly, I don’t vest too much attention or hope in such things any longer (re: George Mitchell stepping down last week).

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