Obama Signals Policy Shift in Middle East Region

Citing recent movements for democratic change across the Middle East and North Africa as a "historic opportunity," President Obama argued that U.S. policy in the region must be rooted in supporting the aspirations of its citizens instead of the power of dictators.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Two years ago in his famous Cairo speech, President Obama heralded a “new beginning” between the United States and Middle East — to end a cycle of mistrust and usher in a new era of democracy and human rights. Aspirational and lofty as the speech was, it lacked concrete policies to support these ideals.

In a speech on Thursday at the U.S. State Department, highlighting recent pro-democracy protests in the Middle East and North Africa, Obama pledged updated policies for the changing region. While he repeated support for political and social reform, he unveiled strategies for economic growth and investment in nations that make such transitions. He started with the example of Tunisia.

“On December 17, a young vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi was devastated when a police officer confiscated his cart,” he began, recounting how Bouazizi was routinely harassed yet received no aid from officials. This time, in an act of desperation and frustration, he went to the headquarters of the provincial government and lit himself on fire. Thousands of Tunisian protestors took to the streets for weeks until the country’s dictator of more than 20 years stepped down, followed by similar nonviolent protests in Egypt which also led to their dictator leaving power.

“So we face a historic opportunity,” Obama said, after summarizing that the U.S. has narrowly pursued security and economic interests in the region without speaking to the broader aspirations of the people. “We have embraced the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator.”

The president argued that his administration has already started to turn that page, citing the removal of combat troops in Iraq, committing U.S. forces to support rebels against Qadaffi in Libya, and striking a blow to al Qaeda by killing Osama bin Laden. More recently, this week Obama imposed tough sanctions against Syrian officials for violent crackdown against anti-government protests, as well as Iranian officials who provided support for Syrian intelligence. The president also chastised U.S. allies Yemen and Bahrain for repressing the voices of its citizens.

“Our efforts cannot stop there,” said Obama. “So the second way that we must support positive change in the region is through our efforts to advance economic development for nations that transition to democracy.”

Maintaining that the political uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are rooted in a lack of economic prospects and self-determination, the president said that America will further support democracy by ensuring financial stability. By starting with those countries in particular, he hopes to incentivize other nations to begin similar transitions. Among his specific policies:

* Relieving Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt, and invest the resources in economic development plans

* Providing Egypt $1 billion in loan guarantees, for financing infrastructure and job creation