President Obama reserved the last section of today's much-publicized speech about the Middle East for the tangled issue that affects just about every other development in the region: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Calling the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace "more urgent than ever," Obama strongly advocated for immediate steps to achieve a two-state resolution of the conflict, based on the 1967 borders. However he made no mention of any U.S. initiatives to advance that process.
Just before he spoke, and as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepared to head to Washington for talks with Obama, the Israeli government announced it had approved discussion of big new settlement construction in East Jerusalem's Har Homa neighborhood. The action was widely seen as a rude challenge to Obama, similar to the announcement of 1,600 new settler homes in East Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden in 2010.
Obama did not mention the Israeli action. But while reaffirming strong U.S. support for Israel, he said, "The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation."
The White House titled the president's speech "A Moment of Opportunity." Its central point was to announce to the world that the U.S. is making a major shift in its foreign policy - as Obama put it, "a new chapter in American diplomacy." The symbolism of the setting was unmistakable. The president delivered his speech in the Benjamin Franklin room at the State Department, rather than in the White House. In introducing him, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointedly emphasized the role of the State Department, in contrast to the Defense Department, in projecting U.S. interests via diplomacy and economic ties. In other words, the message was: the Bush era is over. But the new policy has its own contradictions, as Obama's speech revealed.
A democratic Middle East, Clinton said, is "profoundly in our interests."
Obama traced the development of the Arab democracy movements over the past six months, calling them a struggle for "self-determination" both in personal expression and in economic life.
He condemned the governments of Libya, Syria and Iran for repressing peaceful popular democratic movements, and defended the U.S. military intervention in Libya. He also criticized governments he characterized as "our friends" - Yemen and Bahrain - for their suppression of peaceful protests.
But one country he did not mention was Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive regimes in the region, and one that intervenes in neighboring countries to advance its own interests. The Associated Press reports today that "the United States and Saudi Arabia are quietly expanding defense ties on a vast scale, led by a little-known project to develop an elite force to protect the kingdom's oil riches and future nuclear sites." Sooner or later, many believe, the U.S. will have to address the "elephant in the room" of its unwholesome relationship with this problematic feudal regime.
Obama said the new U.S. foreign policy will center on human rights and economic development. On the human rights side, Obama announced a series of initiatives to foster educational exchanges, develop ties with civil society in the region, and promote equality and full participation for women. He emphasized that the U.S. would respect the results of democratic elections, even if the winners are people the U.S. disagrees with.
On the economic side, he announced the U.S. will aid Egypt's move toward democracy by canceling up to $1 billion of its debt and guaranteeing $1 billion in loans. Beyond that, for countries that are making a transition to democracy, he said the U.S. will work with the European Union to promote "economic modernization" and establish funds to encourage private investment and enterpreneurship.
There seem to be some blind spots here. Obama criticized some regimes for trying to divert pro-democracy movements by blaming "the West ... as the source of all ills, a half century after the end of colonialism." But surely he is well aware that over the past half century the West, and in particular the U.S., has played a very damaging role by seeking to impose its economic model, and the domination of U.S. transnational corporations, in the region. How will this new economic development policy differ from those harmful ones? It remains to be seen.
Clearly, a human rights and economic development approach to foreign relations is a positive step away from the militarism of the Bush-Cheney administration. Obama spoke of "humility" and "mutual interests" as governing principles. But there will undoubtedly be a struggle within our own country over exactly whose interests will determine U.S. actions in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.