Thursday, May 19, 2011

The American President's Speech on the Near East: Another Damp Squib?

"The greatest untapped resource in the Middle East and North Africa is the talent of its people. In the recent protests, we see that talent on display, as people harness technology to move the world. It’s no coincidence that one of the leaders of Tahrir Square was an executive for Google. That energy now needs to be channeled, in country after country, so that economic growth can solidify the accomplishments of the street. Just as democratic revolutions can be triggered by a lack of individual opportunity, successful democratic transitions depend upon an expansion of growth and broad-based prosperity....

First, we have asked the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to present a plan at next week’s G-8 summit for what needs to be done to stabilize and modernize the economies of Tunisia and Egypt. Together, we must help them recover from the disruption of their democratic upheaval, and support the governments that will be elected later this year. And we are urging other countries to help Egypt and Tunisia meet its near-term financial needs.

Second, we do not want a democratic Egypt to be saddled by the debts of its past. So we will relieve a democratic Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt, and work with our Egyptian partners to invest these resources to foster growth and entrepreneurship. We will help Egypt regain access to markets by guaranteeing $1 billion in borrowing that is needed to finance infrastructure and job creation. And we will help newly democratic governments recover assets that were stolen.

Third, we are working with Congress to create Enterprise Funds to invest in Tunisia and Egypt. These will be modeled on funds that supported the transitions in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. OPIC will soon launch a $2 billion facility to support private investment across the region. And we will work with allies to refocus the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development so that it provides the same support for democratic transitions and economic modernization in the Middle East and North Africa as it has in Europe.

Fourth, the United States will launch a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa. If you take out oil exports, this region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland. So we will work with the EU to facilitate more trade within the region, build on existing agreements to promote integration with U.S. and European markets, and open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement. Just as EU membership served as an incentive for reform in Europe, so should the vision of a modern and prosperous economy create a powerful force for reform in the Middle East and North Africa....

Ultimately, it is up to Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them, nor can endless delay make the problem go away. But what America and the international community can do is state frankly what everyone knows: a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.

So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, and a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state....

These principles provide a foundation for negotiations. Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I know that these steps alone will not resolve this conflict. Two wrenching and emotional issues remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians.

Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table. In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel – how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist. In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse."

"Obama's Mideast Speech," At the American State Department, 19 May 2011, in

The speech by the ex-junior Senator from Illinois with the absurd name (aka The President of the United States) on events of the past six months in the Near and Middle East, earn from this observer a mark of 'pas mal'. No more and no less. It of course could have been worse: lots of moralistic, Wilsonian rhetoric without anything to support it. In this instance, at the very least, American policy to support the new regimes (if one may call them that at this point) in Tunisia and Egypt has been clarified somewhat, especially in the economic sphere. And while the debt forgiveness is small (One Billion Dollars) and the amount of new aid (actually merely credit guarantees) is also small (One Billion Dollars), at the very least it is a start. The initiatives to involve the G-8 and the European Union are to be welcomed. If unfortunately rather vague and hostage to follow-through by other parties. The same with the concept of a free-trade agreements with Tunisia and Egypt: given the reluctance of the American Congress to approve any trade-agreements in recent years, one is rather skeptical that anything of a positive nature will be done for either Near Eastern country in the near or indeed far future.

In short, while the American President's initiatives are welcome, it is hardly the second coming of the Marshall Plan to put mildly. With nothing resembling the energy or the will showing that the situation in the Near & Middle East requires special measures and not merely something akin to 'status quo plus'. Concerning the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the words employed were on the whole, not bad (once again), but hardly impresses one as expressing deep concern with the current impasse between the two sides. Nor were we given any idea that the Netanyahu's Cabinet, de facto veto of any substantive movement in the negotiations, has been removed or for that matter even broached with the Israeli Prime Minister (who is now in the USA on a visit). For the rest of it, the assigning of merit and demerit badges to the regimes in Persia, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria is par for the course, as was the total silence concerning the rest of the Gulf & Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the language used about the Libyan War was for the most part in keeping with Western policy, but one longed to hear something more substantive as to when the conflict will be wound-up. The same thing can be said, in spades about the Afghanistan War as well of course. To my genuine surprise, for once I find myself agreeing with that paragon of bien-pensant Liberal Bourgeois commentariat, the Financial Times Philip Stephens, who correctly I believe encapsulates the chief flaws of both the speech itself, as well as the policy behind it, and indeed the man who enunciated both to-day:

"The speeches – the latest on the Arab uprisings – are fine; better than fine really. They acknowledge the complexities of the choices: the unenviable trade-offs between short-term security and long-term strategic interest, and the limitations as well as the reach of US power....The doubts are about follow-through. Having set out his hopes, will Mr Obama invest serious political capital to support them? His administration’s decision this week to impose sanctions on Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime is one encouraging sign. But we have been here before....

Mr Obama, these distant admirers used to say, was careful, deliberative and admirably reluctant to rush into wars. What more could they ask after the Wild West policies of the Bush years. The snag is that laudable caution and scholarly reflection can drift easily into indecision....Still more pressing is what used to be called the Middle East peace process. This week Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington setting terms that he knows the Palestinians can only reject. Mr Netanyahu’s implacable opposition to Palestinian statehood is a rare constant in the region. The expansion of illegal settlements on the West Bank has mocked US attempts to advance an even-handed approach. It has also cost Israel most of its friends. The remaining option for Mr Obama is to announce publicly the essential parameters for a settlement that would guarantee Israel security and the Palestinians a viable state. He has taken one step in that direction by reaffirming the region’s 1967 borders as the basis for an agreement.

White House aides argue that to set out the rest of the framework would risk his prestige. Maybe. But the US is not in control of events. Doing nothing carries its own dangers. Mr Obama has a strategic choice. He can help shape the future. Or he can analyse it"<>/em 1.

1. Philip Stephens, "A choice of Minefields for Obama," The Financial Times. 19 May 2011, in For a similar critique of both the policy and the speech see: Paul Pillar,"The oblique approach to Middle East Policy," The National Interest. 19 May 2011, in


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