What’s At Stake In The President’s “Cairo II” Speech

obama, oval office, april 2011

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The White House has orchestrated a full Middle East agenda this week in the wake of last week’s resignation (WashPost) of special envoy George Mitchell and a recent unity deal between Hamas and Fatah.It also comes following criticism that President Barack Obama has failed to offer a consistent strategy for dealing with the continued Arab Spring turmoil in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere.

Obama met with Jordan’s King Abdullah yesterday, meets with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, and plans to address the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC on Sunday. He also is scheduled to give a major speech Thursday to lay out a rationale for his Middle East approach (LAT), including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The president reportedly thinks the political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa raises the prospect for progress on all fronts (NYT). After the meeting with Jordan’s Abdullah he said it was “more vital than ever” (BBC) that Israelis and Palestinians come to an agreement.

But some policy experts argue that the United States has lost influence and credibility — in part because of its inconsistent approaches to dealing with the Arab Spring uprisings as well as its inability to help resolve Israeli-Palestinian impasse. They say it would be a mistake for the president to try to develop a broad strategy for the region.

The White House welcomed a reformist agenda in Egypt, though it was slow to support the protests that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak. In Libya, the United States has taken a strong stand against Muammar el Qaddafi, where NATO air strikes have led to a virtual standoff between pro-government forces and rebels.

However, the administration has been criticised for not taking a similar hard line against Syria, where the regime of Bashar al-Assad has killed more than 850 people in anti-government protests. That may shift now that the administration has imposed sanctions on Assad (NYT) and six aides for human rights abuses, as was reported Wednesday. Among the critics is CFR’s Elliot Abrams, who chides the president for not saying “one word on camera about the bloodletting in Syria.” Abrams adds, “American sanctions against Syria, meanwhile, have not named Assad, and there has been no call for him to step down.” Others argue that there are dangers in undermining Syria. “For realists in the White House,” writes Aaron David Miller on ForeignPolicy.com, “Assad’s demise carries more risks than opportunities.”

A similar debate has centered on the administration’s cautious response to a violent crackdown on protests in Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy has stationed the 5th Fleet, and in Yemen, which has been an ally in U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

Some believe, however, that Thursday’s speech gives Obama an opportunity to align America’s interests in the Middle East with its values, as Jacob Stokes and Kelsey Hartigan write on RealClearWorld.com. “Stability comes when the legitimate needs, desires and aspirations of people can be met. Only democracy can provide that,” they write.

Ongoing chaos in the Middle East — including last weekend’s protests in which Palestinians attempted to breach Israel’s borders with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Gaza Strip, which led some to predict a third intifada (UPI) — is generating high hopes that Obama’s speech will indicate a path forward for “a region where the wheels could really come off,” as columnist Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times.

It’s an open question whether restored confidence in the United States can salvage the quest for a two-state solution or whether it should even try to develop a regional strategy. The Palestinians have lost faith (DailyBeast) in U.S. ability to forge a fair deal, writes Peter Beinart.

And a recent Pew report shows that Arab opinion of the United States has not improved with the pro-democracy movement in the region, and that most Muslim nations disapprove of how Obama has handled the call for political change in the region. But as CFR President Richard Haass argues, the recent Mideast turbulence has underscored the United States’ limited ability to influence outcomes, and the Obama administration should limit itself to responses “tailored to local circumstances, local interests, and available policy instruments.”


When Obama delivers an address at the State Department on Thursday, which many are billing as “Cairo II,” his speech is expected to reflect how much the Mideast has changed, writes Josh Gerstein at Politico.com.

In the New York Times, Mahmoud Abbas discusses the need for a Palestinian state.

It’s time to denounce Syria, writes Michael Tomasky at the DailyBeast.com

This post originally appeared at The Council of Foreign Relations.