Unfortunately Obama's approach to the peace process in Middle East at the State Department last week will only lead to a repeat of past mistakes, as well as making it harder for Israel to negotiate -- especially if its partner is run by Hamas, a terrorist group committed by its charter to Israel's destruction.
Obama's speech, by focusing on attention on the minutiae of where future borders will be drawn, rather than more pressing issues – the development of Palestinian civil society, its economy and internal political reform, for example – fails to take into account what sort of failed state he is asking a democracy to negotiate with.. Until these bigger issues are dealt with first, squabbling over borders is futile, all the more as the central argument Israel has with other countries in the region has nothing to do with borders at all, but about their inability to tolerate Israel's existence as a Jewish state at all - within any borders. Agreeing to Israel's existence as a Jewish state within any borders is concept to which the Palestinians and the Arabs cannot possibly agree without being regarded as heretics and traitors by their own people.
Obama did commit to more engagement in the region, after spending months on the sidelines during the greatest period of popular unrest in memory. He called the enemies of America and of Middle East freedom names like dictator, tyrant, intolerant and brutal – but not Islamist (as opposed to Islamic). He clearly supports freedom and democracy movements in the Middle East, and wants America to be more "engaged" in making it a reality. But when it comes time to act, his strategy has been to outsource the real work the U.N., N.A.T.O. and other multilateral organizations. Although this abdication of leadership is possibly intended to avoid appearing as a global " bully," it effectively abandons the battlefield to the West's adversaries.
True to form, Obama's speech was full of lofty rhetoric and hopeful platitudes on all topics except one: Israel. Here, the President could not have been clearer: the 1967 border lines should serve as the basis for a future Palestinian state. On the rest of the Middle East, he continues to say some of the right things but has yet to follow through with concrete action.
Obama's comments on Israel were a departure from U.S. policy -- or publicly-stated policy at least -- and even a departure from Obama's own policy until this point. They effectively abrogate past U.N. agreements, namely U.N. Resolution 242 which committed both the Israelis and the Palestinians to direct negotiations, as well as President Bush's letter to Ariel Sharon, reasserting that territories should be negotiated, as agreed upon in earlier UN resolutions. If countries believe they are making agreements with presidents, who will be out of power in a few years, rather than with nations, this will -- and should -- mark the end of all international agreements. Obama's remarks also represent a big win for one faction of the administration, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which has been pushing for clear guidelines on peace talks; and a loss for another, including Middle East adviser Dennis Ross.which opposes such a move. Israel has already (predictably) pushed back against this point.
Helpfully, the President did acknowledge that America would support dissidents. "If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States," he said, without adding any details on what exactly that support would entail. This rhetoric doesn't square with Obama's past actions – just ask the people of Iran.
A line that stood out was the declaration that "failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our own interests at their expense." This was a self-referential statement, the irony of which must have been lost on the White House speech writing team. It is President Obama himself who, over the past several months, has failed to act to encourage Egyptians, Tunisians, Syrians, Bahrainis and others with concrete support in their struggle for liberty.
It is not that America pursues its own interests – the number-one foreign policy goal of every nation on the planet – that turns people against it. It is the hypocrisy and double-standards. If Obama really wanted to improve America's image in the region, he would speak out loudly and clearly against all human rights violators, not just those America dislikes at any given moment.
Namely, the speech contained not a single mention of Saudi Arabia, the greatest human rights abuser in the region; or of Jordan. On Syria, Obama said "President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition [to democracy], or get out of the way," as if the dictator at Damascus has any desire, willingness or ability to be part of an evolution away from the status quo, which would see him tossed unmercifully into history's waste bin.
On the whole, this speech was classic Obama: full of lofty rhetoric, deliberately ambiguous, trying to please everyone all at once, and ending up pleasing no one.