President Obama today delivered a lengthy speech on U.S. policy in the Middle East that promised continued American support for democratic transitions in the countries influenced by the “Arab Spring.” He outlined an overly optimistic vision of what an Israeli–Palestinian peace settlement would look like. But he missed an opportunity to express strong U.S. support for democratic opposition movements brutally repressed by two dictatorships that stand as the chief barriers to realizing American goals in the Middle East: Iran and Syria.
The President reviewed the “extraordinary change” that has recently taken place in Tunisia and Egypt and lamented: “Unfortunately, in too many countries, calls for change have been answered by violence.” While he talked at length about the violent regime reaction in Libya, he shortchanged discussion of the systematic repression in Syria and Iran and failed to announce concrete policies that would help beleaguered democratic forces in those countries to advance freedom and defend human rights.
Instead he stuck with the flawed and fuzzy thinking that his Administration has displayed on Syria, saying, “President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.” In fact, Assad will surely make neither of those choices but will continue to cling to power by mowing down and arresting his own people.
But the Obama Administration has still not called on the Syrian dictator to step down or even say that he has lost his legitimacy, as it previously did with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, an authoritarian leader allied with Washington who was responsible for far less human rights abuse, corruption, and repression than Assad. Moreover, Mubarak was an ally against terrorist groups, while Assad and his Iranian backers are the chief state sponsors of terrorism in the Middle East.
This fuzzy thinking is also apparent in the President’s statements about reviving Israeli–Palestinian peace negotiations. The popular uprisings of the Arab Spring have demonstrated that the Arab–Israeli conflict is not the only source—or even the primary source—of the violence and instability that has roiled the Middle East. Predatory regimes that oppress and steal from their own citizens, use Israel as a convenient scapegoat, and exploit terrorism to advance their interests inside and outside their own territories are a far greater danger to regional peace and stability.
President Obama’s speech glossed over the threats to peace posed by these regimes and the terrorist groups that they support. He stated: “I’m convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past.” But his Administration continues to misread the past—in particular, how continued Palestinian terrorism, backed by Syria and Iran, torpedoed the Israeli–Palestinian peace talks and led to the current stalemate in negotiations.
This misreading of the past and underestimation of the terrorist threat is evident in the President’s statement about the need to return to Israel’s 1967 borders. After all, Israel’s 2005 withdrawal to its 1967 border with Gaza led not to peace but to expanded terrorism after Hamas staged a bloody coup in 2007 and transformed Gaza into a base for launching rockets against Israeli civilians. Israel cannot afford to return to its 1967 border with the West Bank unless it has ironclad guarantees that any territory relinquished will not again be transformed into a base for future terrorist attacks. This is impossible as long as Hamas, committed to Israel’s destruction, remains a potent force.
The Israeli government was quick to react to the Obama speech, tweeting its disappointment that the Obama Administration departed from a previous understanding reached with the Bush Administration on the need for modifications in its 1967 borders. Given the long record of failed agreements with the Palestinians, any future agreement must be based on Israel’s legitimate security requirements, including the need for secure borders and concrete Palestinian policies to fight terrorism.
For more on what the President should have said in his Middle East speech, see: