Friday, May 29, 2009

"...For many in the Mideast, only a promise that the US will strong-arm Israel on settlements will prove American seriousness ..."

WINEP, here

"On June 4, President Barack Obama will give a seminal speech in Egypt that will define not only his approach to the "Muslim world" but also his administration's aspirations for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict and bringing Iran in from the cold. Until now, he and his administration have been engaged in behind-the-scenes diplomacy designed to shape the environment for an integrated strategy toward the Middle East. Although the speech will give Americans and the international community the first real indication of what the president actually plans to do, raised expectations in the region and at home will be difficult to meet, and the risks from negative effects from what he will (and will not) say are real....

.....the administration has provided few public indications of its ultimate policy directions, with neither U.S. special Middle East envoy George Mitchell nor the special advisor for the Gulf and Southwest Asia, Dennis Ross, giving public interviews on their respective agendas. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself, apart from congressional testimony, has not discussed these issues publicly or appeared on a single Sunday morning news program. Clearly, the president now believes his actions and rhetoric have simmered sufficiently to allow for a more dramatic unveiling of his policies toward the region.

What He Is Likely to Say

Given the timing, venue, and geopolitical importance of the speech, President Obama is likely to speak primarily about what he believes the "Muslim world" cares most deeply about: America's effort to bring peace to the region. He believes that if he can convince Muslims, specifically Arab Muslims, of his commitment to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict, he can successfully undercut the appeal of rejectionist powers like Iran and Syria and bolster the legitimacy of "moderate states" such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Speaking just days ahead of Lebanon's parliamentary elections and two weeks before Iran's presidential elections, he may also hope to influence voters to choose more moderate leaderships that will partner with the West in this endeavor.

This can be the only reason why the administration chose Egypt as the venue. Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel and has recently been standing up to Hizballah and working to forge a coalition of moderate states to resist Iranian assertiveness. By traveling to Egypt, the president hopes to demonstrate U.S. confidence and support for President Hosni Mubarak's new proactivity and pay tribute to Egypt's past greatness. And yet, .. Egypt remains a lethargic power where the vast majority of the population subsists on less than a dollar a day. Led by an octogenarian who has been in power since Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981, Egypt persists as an authoritarian regime lacking any truly democratic institutions, making this speech Obama's first delivered in a nondemocracy. This latter fact perhaps explains why White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs emphasized that the speech's scope was "bigger than where the speech was going to be given or who is the leadership of the country," during the press briefing announcing it.

This attempt at evasion, however, fails to fully address the downside of the choice of venue. There is no way for the president to travel to Egypt without providing implicit support for the Mubarak regime. Although it is true that Egypt's courts threw out Saad Eddin Ibrahim's conviction for treason and earlier released Ayman Nour from prison, these moves are widely perceived as gifts to the administration to sidestep criticism from members of Congress who are familiar with these two prominent Egyptian dissidents. In the meantime, the regime continues its ongoing crackdown on students, bloggers, journalists, and political activists of all stripes.....

Obama's Egypt speech represents a watershed moment both for the president and his approach toward the region. Believing as he does that sincere efforts at peacemaking remain key to reconciling America with the "Muslim world," he must now make a case for his intended actions. Unfortunately, experience indicates that whatever he proposes will fall short of expectations. For many in the region, only a promise that the United States will strong-arm Israel on settlements will prove American seriousness, and even then, skepticism will remain high. As one Jordanian columnist recently put it: "The sole bridge toward reconciliation is a Palestinian state."

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