Middle East Matters: Obama's speech on Middle East was almost perfect

Published: Monday, May 23 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

An Israeli settler raises his hand next to an Israeli flag during a protest against a construction freeze in the West Bank settlements outside the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister office in Jerusalem, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010.

Bernat Armangue, Associated Press

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From my perspective, this has been a great month for President Obama’s Middle East policies.

First, the Navy Seals dispatched Osama bin Laden to the depths of the Indian Ocean, then the president slapped personal sanctions on the thugs ruling Syria, which was a step that no other president has had the guts to do.

More kudos are due to President Obama for delivering a 5,450-word speech on the Middle East on Thursday that was almost perfect.

These actions were all courageous ones, and one can only hope that they portend decisive American engagement with the region.

The president began his address by highlighting the impending withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever one thinks of the wars that we have waged in those countries (I supported both of them), this is a positive development, especially in the case of Iraq. As for Afghanistan, a gradual reduction in U.S. forces is the only way to see whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai can actually impose his will on an area larger than his palace.

After lauding the courage of protesters in Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Iran and Yemen, the president observed that “through the moral force of non-violence, the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades.”

Needless to say, there were lots of target audiences for that statement in the region.

The president was careful both to make his case for intervening in Libya and to remind his listeners that the U.S. “cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people…We have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to impose regime change by force.”

It bears repeating again: Every country in the Middle East needs a U.S. policy that is tailored to its unique history, demographics and power dynamics. A one-size-fits-all approach to protests and uprisings is most unwise. Well said, Mr. President.

After imposing unprecedented personal sanctions on Syrian President Bashar Assad, President Obama told Assad that he had two choices: lead a transition to democracy or leave office. My guess is that Assad will choose the third option of continuing to murder his people, but it was refreshing to hear an American president dispense with the illusion that the Syrian government is a potential partner for peace.

More than a few eyebrows raised when the president singled out regional ally Bahrain for criticism. Not only did the Bahraini ruling family use brutality to put down the protests by the Shiite majority, but it did so with the help of Saudi soldiers. Surely the corrupt al-Saud family in Riyadh felt just as targeted as their feckless Bahraini counterparts did by Obama’s broadside. I only wish that the president had mentioned the Saudis by name when he spoke of the crying need for women’s rights to be respected in the Middle East.

In a laudable effort to support the new governments in Egypt and Tunisia and to offer encouragement to protesters in other countries in the region, the U.S. will offer them significant financial support in conjunction with the World Bank, IMF and other countries. Let us hope that this aid will produce stable democracies in those countries.

The president must also be praised for demanding that Coptic Christians in Egypt be accorded the right to worship freely. Christians continue to be persecuted and harassed throughout the region, yet few religious leaders mention their plight. As a result, many Christians are leaving historically Christian cities like Bethlehem and Nazareth, both of which now have Muslim majorities.

Had President Obama ended his talk there, he would have delivered the most detailed and comprehensive speech on the Middle East in recent memory. However, he made the mistake of ending the talk with a lamentable analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that showed he does not really understand it.

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