Can Obama Win in the Middle East?

For years we've sacrificed our own principles on the altar of cheap oil. The president must offer a new vision of the American role in the volatile region.

Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images

When President Obama takes to the podium Thursday to deliver his vision of the Middle East, he will need all the magic of his oratory. In his two years in office, his message to allies and enemies in the world's most contentious region has been confusing, at best. His administration has angered both Israelis and Palestinians without any sign of progress. He has often appeared to be scrambling to keep up with the "Arab Spring" -- the outbreak of democratic yearning that has toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt, led to a standoff in Libya and triggered harsh crackdowns in Bahrain, Syria and Yemen.

Israelis and Arabs alike are asking America, "Aren't we your friend?" Caught in the fallout from the Arab Spring, Obama will walk a fine line in his address and at a meeting Friday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the president continues his attempts to mollify all sides.

The love following his Cairo address two years ago is waning. His speech comes at a time when his popularity among Arabs has dropped, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. In addition to the stability of a region, American principles are also at stake.

The people presently hitting the streets in the Arab Spring have read our Declaration of Independence, where it says, " ... it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them to another ... " and when the people are " … under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government ... " And they loved it.

They are quite familiar with much of American history and are emulating it as they shed their blood and lives for freedom and democracy in "the pursuit of happiness." As they wrap themselves in American principles, symbols and examples while storming the barriers, they look around and find a missing friend: America.

Why? Because we have placed ourselves not on the side of angels but squarely with the dictators and despots now desperately defending those ramparts. Our desire -- our necessity -- for oil and stability long ago put us in the camp with those who give the orders to shoot-to-kill unarmed civilians in Yemen, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates, and with their enablers in Saudi Arabia, and by extension, Washington.

Then there are the uprisings in Syria; in yet-to-be-touched-directly, but inevitably, Algeria and Morocco; and now, as of the past weekend, at Israel's borders, an uprising that left 12 Arabs dead -- an obvious addition to Friday's agenda for Obama's meeting with Netanyahu. And surely democracy beckons the peoples in the vast African lands that border the southern Sahara rim to the far south of the continent. Sooner or later? Inevitably.

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The Arab rebellion began with the toppling of governments in Tunisia and Egypt and quickly spread. However, serious unrest remains in both of those nations as military authorities and civilians continue to clash over future directions, a possible omen for the rest of the Arab Spring. In Libya, there appears to be a stalemate at the moment between the regime of Muammar Qaddafi and forces trying to oust him. A bloody crackdown also appears to have resulted in a stalemate in Yemen, while Bahrain brutally put down a citizen uprising, with military assistance from Saudi Arabia.

Ominously, the Saudis have hardened their position against the United States, as articulated by Islamic scholar Nawaf Obaid in an op-ed article in Monday's Washington Post. Meanwhile, the Syrian government continues to use deadly force against protesting unarmed civilians.