In discussing his vision for the Middle East Thursday, President Obama said, "there will be times when our short-term interests don't align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region." A close reading of his speech reveals how big an understatement that is. In fact, in the near-term, much of what the president plans to do -and more importantly, not do - will make achieving that long-term vision much harder.
He again spoke of America's support for a set of universal rights that 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." Yet in Tehran, he stood with the regime and not the people after the fraudulent 2009 elections that saw Iranian protesters take to the streets. The exercise of those "universal rights" was seen then as an obstacle to his engaging-with-enemies agenda. But Iran remains America's largest looming foreign policy issue and Obama's words will have no affect on the leaders who continue to pursue nuclear weapons or the people he callously neglected two years ago.
In Damascus the people are currently on the streets demanding the same set of universal rights that Obama promotes. But here too the president fell way short. It is inexcusable to lay out American principles as he did and then not call for regime change in Syria. The shaky case he made for intervening in Libya — where America has very limited interests — has already been surpassed by the obvious case for intervention in Syria where close to a thousand people have already been killed. The Assad regime is Iran's partner and the greatest obstacle to the long-term success of the "Arab Spring." It is also a perfect example of the failure of the White House's engagement strategy.
Obama's profound misreading of that regime as a possible catalyst for positive change was apparent when he said, "President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition or get out of the way." It is now over two months into the Syrian uprising and Assad made his choice long ago. And the Syrian dictator will take heart knowing that America's words are empty. Indeed, it is sad to imagine how hollow his words ring out among those protesting in Syria when he said, "Our message is simple: If you take risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States." What support is he referring to?
Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of Obama's speech is that he correctly pointed out that for too long leaders in the region tried to direct their people's grievances elsewhere. "Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression," he explained. But then he launched into a new set of American principles on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, once again making an issue that has nothing to do with the "Arab Spring" central in American foreign policy.
Obama abandoned a cornerstone of U.S. policy, which was based on solving the territorial issue according to UN Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for borders to be "secure and recognized." His call for the territorial solution to be based on the 1967 border is a solid and public step toward the Palestinian position at a time when the terrorist group Hamas and Fatah have formed a unity government. This is yet another concession Obama made to the Palestinians that they will pocket. The first was his settlement freeze demand as a precondition to negotiate that is largely responsible for the lack of progress in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how Fatah and Hamas would be unified and seeking unilateral recognition of statehood without Obama's previous and current missteps in the peace process. At any rate, the renewed focus on the peace process at this time — without any mechanism to implement it — will likely prove to be yet another waste of American diplomatic capital.
It is not hard to spell out what a positive future would look like in the Middle East. It's getting there that is the problem. President Obama offered reassuring words but he did not spell out what he intends to do to help those currently in the streets of Syria and Libya. In short, he sold the dream of a future without anything specific in the near term.