May 19, 2011

Previewing the President's Middle East Speech (With Live Blogging and Reactions to Follow)

Ahhh, I remember the last time the president addressed the nation. Remember that? The whole "I have ordered Navy SEALs to track down and shoot Osama bin Laden in the head" address? I think we can all agree that was a great, great speech.

Today, the president is scheduled to deliver another speech. This one is on the Middle East, and I am neither aware of what the president will say nor sure why this speech is being given. I suspect this speech was planned some time ago in order to announce U.S. support for Arab self-determination -- which now includes military support to the rebels in Libya, a fresh round of sanctions against the regime in Damascus, and a package of economic and political aid to the people of Egypt.

The visit of King Abdullah this week, coupled with both the upcoming visit of Benjamin Netanyahu and some recent unpleasantness along Israel's borders, means the president will also be asked to address issues related to Palestinian self-determination specifically. The president will not want Netanyahu, in his address to the Congress, or other Israeli policy-makers, in crazy op-eds in the New York Times, to set the terms of the debate, so he will want to get out ahead and establish the parameters of the policy discourse.

That makes sense, but I suspect today's speech will be a bit of a mess because the president might try to do too many things with it and because expectations are now so high. Brian Katulis has gamely attempted to identify three goals around which the president might create a strategy for the region, and they all make sense. They also, though, highlight how difficult it is to actually come up with a coherent strategy for the region writ large. Although the Arabic-speaking world, at least, shares a common language and public sphere (to a degree, and thanks to media such as al-Jazeera), U.S. interests vary from country to country, making a one-size-fits-all regional strategy tough. Okay, so we support self-determination in Libya, Egypt and Syria. But why not in Bahrain or the Palestinian territories? Okay, so we will employ military force to effect regime change in Iraq and Libya. But why not in Syria or Yemen? These are questions Arabs have and to which they will likely not receive satisfactory answers.

I will be listening to the president's speech today with much interest and with very low expectations. I'll live-blog the speech, assuming I can get out of a meeting I have scheduled, and encourage you all to then check out the conversation moderated by @acarvin and our own @abuaardvark on Twitter (#MESpeech) after the speech.

Watch this space...

1143: OK, I just literally ran out of a meeting to live blog this thing and ... am now staring at a video of a briefing room. And John Kerry. And Mike Mullen. C'mon, already...

1149: @joshrogin: He's waiting for the Just for Men to dry #reasonsObamaislate

1155: Robert Fisk is apparently offering comment on al-Jazeera English. My friend @shadihamid writes, "I'm not sure if I like Robert Fisk's commentary on #MESpeech. He doesn't seem to understand how US policy works." Shadi, I think you meant to write, "I'm not sure if I like Robert Fisk's commentary on _______. He doesn't
seem to understand how ______ works."

1159: Issandr el-Amrani (@arabist) writes, "Adherence to official US policy and internationally accepted solution
(i.e. 1967) should not be big news."

1200: Man, this guy is really late. I've got $10 that says he's in Hillary's office right now with a pencil, a map and about three other people trying to draw out the borders of a Palestinian state, Mark Sykes style.

1203: @Todd_Zwillich: Advance team just realized
podium isn't facing Mecca #ReasonsObamaIsLate

1206: Turn off your cell phones and pagers, everybody. (Who the hell still carries a pager?!)

1209: Lots of Arab ambassadors in the audience. What are the odds that one of the regimes they serve will fall by the end of the speech?

1211: White House aides are saying the president is late because they were making last-minute changes to the speech. "Strategy for the Middle East" doesn't seem like one of those things you want to be tweaking at the last minute, though.

1216: POTUS talking about how al-Qaeda lost the Arabs. Funnily, enough, I -- ahem -- wrote an entire chapter on this subject for this New York Times best-selling e-book.

1218: POTUS draws comparison between American revolutionaries and those in the Arabic-speaking world. Now he's talking about self-determination, political and economic.

1220: You can feel the strong influence of @abuaardvark on this section dealing with the new Arab public sphere.

1222: America to the Arabic-speaking world: "I'm not a witch. I'm you."

1224: Holy cow! I guess we really are all neo-conservatives now. Obama talking about how we cannot focus on stability -- we must support self-determination. I'll leave it up to you as to whether he sounds more like Woodrow Wilson or Natan Sharansky.

1226: "The United States opposes the use of violence and oppression against the people of the region."

1227: The United States supports "freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, equal rights of men and women, the right to choose your own leaders."

1227: Values > Interests; or, rather, our values are our interests.

1228: Now the president is talking about post-Iraq liberal interventionism and why we intervene where we can -- but why it's unrealistic to expect the United States to intervene everywhere.

1229: I wish I were as optimistic about Libya as this president.

1231: All of this liberal interventionist rhetoric is great, but as the president is speaking, his administration is slashing the defense budget, and the Republican House of Representatives is slashing our International Affairs budget. At some point, our aspirations run up against a smaller pool of resources available to policy makers.

1233: Strong words for Bashar al-Asad. Strong words for the regime in Bahrain, though, too.

1234: Holy cow, the president just pointed toward Iraq as an example to be followed in the region. How do other Arabs feel about that? My sense is that the Arabic-speaking world looks at the horrific maelstrom of violence into which Iraq descended in 2004 and thinks, "Uh, no thanks."

1238: The rhetoric about womens' rights and freedom to worship is great, but SAUDI ARABIA.

1240: Mentioning the destruction of Shia mosques in Bahrain is huge. That is going to infuriate the regime in Bahrain.

1241: Stabilizing and modernizing the economies of Tunisia and Egypt is where this speech goes beyond mere rhetoric. This gets as initiatives the United States can actually do, such as debt forgiveness. 

1246: I just got the text of the speech and am skipping ahead: "The dream
of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation."

1247: The only thing POTUS is saying about Israel is stuff U.S. presidents have been saying about Israel since, oh, 1967. Issandr is right: there is no news here. The president is not saying anything Presidents Bush or Clinton would not have said.

1252: Jeffrey Goldberg: "President Obama is a better Zionist than Danny Danon and Likud
hardliners, who will bring about end of Israel through endless
occupation." True. Crazy, though: Obama is not so much presenting an alternative to what other U.S. presidents have said but rather an alternative to what Israeli leaders are offering their people right now.

1257: Aaaaand, that's it.

QUICK REACTION: Well, that speech did a few things:

1) It delivered a very anti-dictatorship, pro-self-determination message that would have made Woodrow Wilson proud. The president deserves a lot of credit for boldly taking on the regime in Bahrain -- even going so far as to blame it for the destruction of Shia mosques in that country. Huge. Cynics like me, though, will note the president did not say the words "Saudi" or "Arabia" anywhere in the talk. Women not having equal rights? People not allowed to worship freely? No freedom of assembly? Yeah, that is U.S. ally Saudi Arabia more than any other state in the region.

2) In support of Palestine, the president committed himself to basically the same stuff that every other U.S. president has talked about. In support of Israel, meanwhile, the president both brushed back the Palestinians on bringing statehood up before the United Nations and expressed scepticism about the deal between Hamas and Fatah. This was an incredibly pro-Israel speech, and anyone who says otherwise is talking nonsense. Only an extremist like Danny Danon could whine about what the president said. I can't believe the U.S. media -- and I'm looking at you, New York Times -- is reporting the president's support for two states built along the 1967 lines as news.

I am off to the White House to get spun on the speech in a few hours and will have more comments later. Overall, though, I was underwhelmed and suspect most Arabs will be as well. But maybe the early analysis is right, and this speech was more aimed at a U.S. audience than at the peoples of the region itself.