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Few Surprises in Obama’s Mideast Speech

WASHINGTON, May 20 2011 (IPS) - In a much-anticipated speech on the Middle East and North Africa on Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama broadly outlined an ambitious set of U.S.-guided initiatives intended to reinforce economic and political prosperity, democratic reforms and, most emphatically, self-determination for the millions of protestors throughout the region who have taken to the streets over the past six months.

However, some analysts here were quick to characterise the speech as a recapitulation of earlier policy positions.

“[W]e have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self-determination of individuals. The status quo is not sustainable. Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder,” Obama stated.

Decades of violent conflict, corruption and diminishing economic opportunities for millions have ingrained the perception – based on both fact and opinion – held by many in the region of the U.S. as being a complicit partner, if not sole instigator, in the perpetuation of such misfortunes: a perception that, since first coming to office, Obama tried to counter assiduously.

Some analysts argue that it was critical for the Obama administration to outline a shift in its regional policy.

Economic Assistance

The U.S. assistance package for Egypt and Tunisia will work in conjunction with pledged support from multilateral organizations such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and will be based on the four "pillars" of "support for better economic management," "economic stability," "economic modernisation and reform," and a "framework for trade integration and investment".

"With regard to the scale, we anticipate that the debt swap, both relief of debt and the investments that would ensue, would amount to roughly one billion dollars over a few years, and that the [Overseas Private Investment Corporation] loan guarantees would support roughly an additional billion," a senior Obama administration official said during a teleconference before the president's speech.

According to White House officials, Egypt, the most populous Arab country, will face a significant decline in foreign direct investment, a deficit that is expected to grow to over 10 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and a revised growth rate of one percent for the next year after sustained average rates of five percent over the past 15 years as youth unemployment hovers around 30 percent.

"[P]art of the purpose of this economic programme, again, is to reinforce not only positive change in Egypt and Tunisia, but a positive model that can empower and incentivise democratic change and economic reform in other parts of the region," the administration official added.

Many of the programs President Obama mentioned in the speech were first unveiled during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Egypt last March.

The U.S. has already made available 165 million dollars in immediate economic assistance in Egypt, and has requested 250 million dollars in economic support funds and 1.3 billion dollars in military financing for fiscal year 2012, beginning in October.

But much remains to be done on the ground in Egypt, as military officials continue to run the country in the run up to parliamentary elections which are planned to be held later in the year, and the likely rewriting of the Egyptian constitution.

“The old way of doing business in the Middle East is no longer sustainable…[T]he Obama administration should redouble its efforts to support the transition by adopting a more comprehensive reform package for Egypt, revive its longstanding but flagging efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and stay the course on Iran,” Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, wrote Wednesday.

“Moving more boldly – as President Obama did in his decision on the bin Laden raid – will lead to greater chances for progress and change in the region,” Katulis added.

Dr. Paul Pillar, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst, argued that the speech failed to deliver an immediate shift in overall policy, but left room for some optimism.

“Most appetites – of those on different sides of the issues concerned – will be left unsatisfied by this speech. That is unsurprising, given the political realities with which the president has to work. But there was enough in the appetizer to raise hope that later – even if only in a possible second term, when Mr. Obama will never have to face re-election again – the president will serve up some real meat,” Pillar wrote in the blog on Thursday.

Since the uprisings began, two parallel themes that emerged along with that of the power of organic, peaceful and popular uprisings yearning for dignity, justice and political reform was that of the U.S. response, which received charges of hypocrisy, to the uprisings and Obama’s self-described pragmatic “country-by-country approach and that of the uprisings as presenting an opportunity for a dramatic change in U.S. policy towards the region.

“We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator,” Obama said.

The speech touched on human rights abuses in countries such as Yemen, where the Obama administration has backed a Gulf Cooperation Council- mediated dialogue with President Ali Abdullah Saleh; and in Bahrain, where the U.S. continues to support a dialogue between Bahraini opposition leaders and their government, which has used violence to suppress protests and arrested doctors providing aid to victims.

“The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail,” Obama said, referring to the protests in Bahrain.

President Obama took a tougher tone in acknowledging the intransigence of some the U.S.’s closest allies in the region in suppressing protests, but he did not put forth a clear set of consequences if governments continue such repression.

“[I]f America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that at times our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for consistent change — with change that’s consistent with the principles that I’ve outlined today,” Obama stated.

The central message in his speech was framed as an optimistic plan forward, rather than a retort to the criticism of the contrasts in U.S. policy in the region – full support, even military intervention in Syria and Libya compared to the negligible U.S. backing for political change in Bahrain and Yemen.

As Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington Friday and the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee gears up for its annual conference this weekend in Washington, Obama did not include any profound changes in policy with regards to the Palestinian- Israeli issue.

He stated that the U.S.’s focus will now be on Israeli security and, most significantly, pre-1967 borders for a Palestinian state rather than the controversial Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank, the division of Jerusalem or the return of Palestinian refugees

Notably, however, he explicitly denounced the United Nations General Assembly vote on officially recognised statehood planned for September while remaining open to the recent Palestinian national reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, a group the U.S. considers to be a terrorist organisation.

The largest piece missing from the president’s speech was mention of Saudi Arabia – a historically strong U.S. ally that has articulated seemingly divergent policies than those of the U.S. in the regional uprisings.

“Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s policies have changed quite dramatically in the last couple of months,” Gary Sick, former member of the National Security Council under three administrations said on a PRI “To the Point” interview on Thursday.

“One hand we have enormous people-driven change in part of the Arab world and on the other, we have a really counter-revolutionary movement that is saying ‘we want nothing to do with any of this,'” Sick added.

Obama’s brief mention of Iran, centred on its past human rights abuses, the Iranian government’s role as an enabling ally of Syria and its alleged meddling in sectarian divisions in countries such as Bahrain – a shift from the U.S.’s concentrated focus in the past on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.

Implicit, however, in his emphasis on self-determinism was that fact that the U.S., as has been the case since protests began, will wield little influence over the path that each uprising ultimately takes.

“[W]e must proceed with a sense of humility. It’s not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo – it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and it’s the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome,” Obama said.

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