A New Diplomacy: Obama on the Middle East
by Heather Regen | Georgetown University
At the State Department on Thursday afternoon, President Obama delivered a speech outlining the U.S. response to the “extraordinary change” taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. Recognizing “a moment of opportunity,” the president addressed conflicts both new and old, from Syria’s crackdown on protestors to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
“For the American people, the scenes of upheaval in the region may be unsettling, but the forces driving it are not unfamiliar,” the president recognized. Calling up images of the patriots in Boston and Rosa Parks, Obama told the story of Mohammed Bouazizi, the 26 year-old vendor who set himself aflame in Tunisia.
“There are times in the course of history when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has been building up for years,” the president said. Bouazizi catalyzed the mounting frustration in Tunisia, triggering a revolution that ousted a dictator who had ruled for over two decades.
At the root of these uprisings, President Obama argued that “a new generation has emerged.” Obama spoke about the spread of social media and a generation of youth left unable to pursue their ideas in the face of corruption. The president pointed to the pervasive problem that “many young people have a solid education, but closed economies leave them unable to find a job.”
Looking to this “lack of individual opportunity” as well as the festering grievances built up over years of political oppression, President Obama used his speech to refocus U.S. interests in the Middle East and North Africa.
“The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders-–whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran,” the president asserted.
Yet rather than set forth universal rights and democratic values as a prelude to security interests in the region, Obama made it clear that “our support for these principles is not a secondary interest.” While the goals to counter terrorism and stop nuclear proliferation hold firm, the president recognized that “a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind.”
Placing a renewed focus on “ordinary people,” President Obama laid out a new diplomatic approach where the United States will not simply engage with governments but will instead reach beyond elites and extend beyond capitals. Asserting that politics and human rights alone do not pull protesters to the streets, the president highlighted the importance of economic reform in budding democratic nations.
Looking to increase “trade, not just aid” and “investment, not just assistance,” the president laid out a plan promoting the region’s economic reform and integration into the global economy. Starting with concrete measures in Egypt and Tunisia, the president spoke about his administration’s work with Congress to create Enterprise Funds to invest in Egypt and Tunisia, modeled after “the funds that supported the transitions in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
The president promised to relieve Egypt of up to one billion dollars of debt, while at the same time guaranteeing another billion in borrowing to Egyptian markets to finance infrastructure and create jobs. In the region as a whole, the president spoke of launching a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative, opening the door to countries “who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement.”
Concluding his speech, the president turned to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Advocating for the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state, President Obama asserted that the Israeli-Palestinian border should be based off of the 1967 lines and a set of land swaps to account for displaced persons and settlements.
The president recognized that “there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward now.” Yet President Obama wholeheartedly disagreed.
“At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever,” the president said.Heather Regen is a NextGen Journal Editor and a student at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, Class of 2014.