Stimson President Ellen Laipson Reacts to Obama’s Speech

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By Ellen Laipson – The President’s speech on the Middle East was workmanlike on the issue of democratic change, and relatively more interesting on Arab-Israeli peace.  Overall, his message was that the US will be on the right side of history, and our policies will be recalibrated so that promoting reforms and peaceful transitions become our driving impulse, replacing the long-standing focus on stability.   

President Obama provided useful, but somewhat obvious, updates on each of the countries undergoing change.  The most notable was his language on Syria – saying that President Assad should lead the process of change or get out of the way – and on Bahrain, where the call for a dialogue between the monarchy and the largely Shia opposition was accompanied by strong language about regime violence and human rights abuses.  On Syria, some will be disappointed that he did not go further in calling for leadership change, as the US has in Libya and Yemen.  On Bahrain, the message was at least in part to dispel the notion that the US has deferred to Saudi Arabia by avoiding any direct criticism of the Khalifa regime in Manama.  

More interesting was the clarity of the message on Palestine, and the effective link he made between the demand for change across the Arab world, and the need for a fresh effort to get to the finish line on Palestine.  The President outlined a path forward through direct negotiations to agreement on two of the four big “final status” issues.  He declared that a deal could be made on security for Israel and negotiated land swaps leading to a state for Palestine, leaving for later the sensitive issues of Jerusalem and refugees.  But the President then left it to the parties to begin this approach, and did not outline specific things that he could do to cajole or compel the parties to the negotiating table.

Overall, the speech did not match the President’s track record for inspiring ideas, eloquent language, and new conceptual thinking about long-standing problems. People in the region are disappointed or dismissive, suggesting that turning the principles of the speech into action will be a daunting task.

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