What Now, Mr. President?

Obama’s Middle East Speech Now Requires Follow Through

President Obama takes a first step toward outlining a bold new Middle East strategy, but the key now is concerted follow up and implementation, writes Brian Katulis.

President Barack Obama delivers a policy address on events in the Middle  East at the State Department in Washington, May 19, 2011. The speech was a step in the right direction, but it does not a strategy make. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama delivers a policy address on events in the Middle East at the State Department in Washington, May 19, 2011. The speech was a step in the right direction, but it does not a strategy make. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Barack Obama’s Middle East speech on May 19 served as a kind of Rorschach test aimed at laying clear the bottom line positions of leaders and people in the region and political figures here at home. The speech was like an inkblot held up to elicit a range of responses—feverish from President Obama’s political opponents while at the same time garnering mostly shrugs of indifference from the people on the streets where the Arab uprisings are taking place. Dealing with the reactions and actions of the various players around the region as events play out in the coming months will determine if a new Middle East strategy truly emerges.

This was a speech largely aimed at leaders, opinion formers who shape the policy, and in part the American public. It was in sharp contrast to President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, which was targeted at the people living in Muslim-majority countries. Almost everyone who listened found something to love or hate in the speech—nits were picked, fits were thrown, credit was claimed, and blame was assigned.

In covering so much ground at once in the speech, it also had the consequence of getting some listeners to see a reflection of their own ideas in the speech—hence the efforts by some conservatives such as Charles Krauthammer to say this was cribbed from George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda speeches.

But President Obama’s central theme of prosperity and economic development was perhaps underappreciated. The importance of this approach to the region is something I wrote about in my own book The Prosperity Agenda, and it is akin to the perceptive Spencer Ackerman picked up early on as an Obama dignity agenda. Generating strong reactions and connecting with listeners was a central point of an overarching framework for the president’s speech.

Now the obvious point—a speech by itself does not a strategy make. The speech was necessary but insufficient on its own to change the mindset and craft a long-term proactive strategy that I argued for before the speech in this article. If Team Obama dedicates as much elbow grease toward actually implementing the principles and framework that they did in promoting and briefing multiple audiences on this speech (those briefings still continued more than a day after the speech), then the Obama administration may well craft a new Middle East strategy that advances U.S. national security interests in a region at the start of a major transformation.

How events play out in the region and what the Obama administration does to shape them in the coming weeks and months is the test of whether an effective strategy emerges, something the president readily acknowledged. My initial reaction to the speech was that this may be remembered as the “then what?” speech. What if the Israelis and Palestinians don’t move to avert the looming showdown and continue unilateral efforts that are bound to collide? What if the regimes in Syria and Bahrain don’t respond?

By drawing lines in the sand on promoting democracy and advancing the peace process, the Obama administration risks further contributing to perceptions of a decline in U.S. power in the region. For many years now, U.S. presidents have set goals or challenges to the region only to be ignored with no consequences.

That’s why the follow through is essential. On policy implementation, the first task quite obviously is dealing with the dynamics in Israel, with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington for several days. All eyes will be on the Obama-Netanyahu meeting today, but the next few days also offer opportunities and perils, with speeches by many leaders at the annual American Israel Political Action Committee or AIPAC conference in Washington.

President Obama should use the next few days to continue the dialogue he started with his statement of how to restart the moribund peace talks by stating clearly once again in his speech at the AIPAC conference that achieving a two-state solution to the conflict as part of a more comprehensive regional agreement remains in the national security interests of the United States and Israel.

After that, the Obama administration needs to undertake a more concerted effort to communicate directly to the Israeli public, something I recommended in this 2009 trip report coauthored with Marc Lynch and Bob Adler. Our advice went largely unheeded back then, as most of the policy implementation took place behind closed doors. In the president’s so-called “controversial” statement on 1967 borders with land swaps as the basis for future dialogue, President Obama in his speech articulated publicly that which successive U.S. and Israeli administrations have discussed behind closed doors for years—something we recommended the administration do back in 2009 when it was getting trapped in the settlement freeze debate. It’s time to have these discussions in public, forthrightly and engagingly.

Similarly, the president needs to reinvigorate efforts to reach out of the elite bubbles to broader audiences in the Middle East, something he promised to do in the speech. The fact that most people in the Middle East reacted to the speech with “apathy and wariness,” as reported by Liz Sly and Ernesto Londono in The Washington Post, is not unexpected given the dashed hopes after the 2009 Cairo speech. But a broader engagement in all countries can help shape the strategy. The most important challenge will be Egypt, and the U.S. economic and financial assistance package announced for the country may not be sufficient to meet the challenges arising there.

The Obama administration does not want to turn the corner heading into 2012 with people asking the question: “Who lost Egypt?” Avoiding the question will require a more fundamental rethink of how to advance a more effective strategy there. The president has selected a top-notch diplomat to lead the efforts in Anne Patterson, but she cannot be hampered by the sort of bureaucratic delays that plagued the $150 million of reprogrammed assistance announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in March.

The Obama administration needs to make the second strategic shift of its term, as I argued in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death earlier this month. This means assessing whether it truly makes sense to spend more than $100 billion in Afghanistan when Egypt could deserve more attention, resources, and personnel.

Multiple other challenges exist on other fronts—in Iran, Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and possibly other countries in the region as the Arab Spring continues to bubble along. One of the challenges in developing this regional strategy will be setting the priorities overall. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. Tactile day-to-day adjustments will be necessary, again highlighting the need for vigilant and concerted follow through on the policy front.

That’s also true on the political front at home. President Obama’s speech has produced several hyperbolic and unhinged reactions from conservatives, including Mitt Romney’s accusation that President Obama “threw Israel under the bus.” Steadily reminding people that the United States stands strongly behind Israel as it tries to revive the peace process is essential. Under President Obama’s leadership, security cooperation with Israel has been “unprecedented,” notes Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who served in senior national security positions in nearly every administration since the 1970s. And as President Obama’s National Security Adviser Tom Donilon outlined at a speech in Washington last week, the United States continues to support Israel’s security with cooperation on missile defense systems and close coordination on dealing with Iran.

More broadly, the Obama administration will face the additional challenges of making the Middle East efforts matter to lives of ordinary Americans who are still facing tough economic times at home. Jobs and the economy remain the center of gravity in America’s policy and political debates. Making the case for debt relief in Egypt at a time when America’s own debt problems are being debated by Congress and the administration is no easy task. And calling for aid packages for the oil-rich Middle East—as modest and focused on trade and private-sector investment as they may be—could be a tough political sell at a time when gas prices remain high.

President Obama’s speech yesterday’s speech was a step in the right direction. But the real test of whether a clear and effective strategy takes shape will come in applying the principles to the complicated realities of the region and continuing to sell it to the American public in this current political context.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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 (Brian Katulis)

Brian Katulis

Former Senior Fellow