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.
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
* Creating Enterprise Funds to invest in Tunisia and Egypt, modeled after U.S. funds that were used to support transitions in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall
* Launching a comprehensive trade and investment initiative in the region, to build on existing commerce and promote integration with U.S. and European markets
President Obama’s proposals came one day before he is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he specifically addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While he strongly affirmed the United States’ bond with Israel and backed the country’s right to exist, he also firmly supported the ambition of a Palestinian state. To that end, he reinforced his push for a two-state solution, calling on both sides to do their part.
“The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome,” he said. “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.” In order to secure the goal of “a viable Palestine and a secure Israel,” Obama said that border negotiations should be based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps, to establish two states for two peoples.
Though the president came down in the middle, given the volatile nature of the conflict, the rehash of his two-state resolution is unlikely to please either side. “I recognize how hard this will be,” Obama admitted. “But I’m convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past.”
Obama concluded by returning to the changes happening throughout the entire region of the Middle East and North Africa, paralleling upheavals there with the American story:
“Our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire. Our people fought a painful civil war that extended freedom and dignity to those who were enslaved. And I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of non-violence as a way to perfect our union – organizing, marching, and protesting peacefully together to make real those words that declared our nation: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.’”