Obama’s Middle East Speech: The Message Was Not Received

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

What more than climbing the borders with Israel in the Golan Heights and Lebanon must Palestinian refugees do to attract President Obama’s attention? For the first time, Palestinian refugees in Syria and Lebanon have decided, like their fellow Arabs, to march against their source of frustration, taking the call for freedom in the Middle East to a new level. However, the response they received from President Obama is that their cause will have to wait. Obviously, their message was not received.

The president’s speech reminds us of the 1993 Oslo negotiations in its philosophy of negotiating only parts of the problem and leaving the crucial issues for the unknown. That approach perhaps made sense in 1993, but today, after 18 years of futile negotiation, it is unclear how much longer the refugees will have to wait for their cause even to be on the table. Indeed, because of such frustration and uncertainty about the future, millions in the Arab world have taken to the streets, seeking to unseat their leaders.

President Obama faced the same dilemma that U.S. foreign policy has struggled in the past decades in the Middle East: unequivocal support of freedom and democracy for some countries compared to “encouragement for negotiation and dialogue” in others. For President Bashar al-Asad of Syria, the president was firm. He told the Syrian leader either to “lead the transition or get out of the way.” For a second tier country of interest like Bahrain, however, the President affirmed, “the only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue.” As for the first tier, “Israeli friendship,” the American commitment is “unshakeable.” This is the same exact problem that has long challenged the credibility of the U.S. foreign policy in the region and has always raised concerns of an American double standard in the region. Obama’s speech struggled with the same dilemma, and therefore it is no surprise that he suggested that Palestinian refugees would have to continue to wait, after 63 years of waiting, for a solution to their grievance.

A selective approach of issues has failed miserably over the past 18 years of negotiations. Middle East peace requires a deductive and inclusive approach with a vision that builds a framework for a solution of all major issues, including that of the refugees.  Conflict issues have proven again and again to be indivisible. Dealing with some parts today and leaving the others to an uncertain future will only exacerbate frustration and provide the foundation to undermine any progress made on other levels. A comprehensive peace package, on the other hand, will help all parties face the challenge and put an end to their suffering. President Obama’s selective approach unfortunately suggests that he seeks to avoid the real issues rather than facing them. As we have seen throughout the Middle East, avoidance never makes problems disappear.

Furthermore, $1 billion of loan forgiveness to Egypt will not make U.S. foreign policy more credible in the Arab world nor will it help the people embrace what Secretary Clinton called “a new approach of American foreign policy.” It is only the bold and universal commitment to principles of justice, democracy, and freedom that will restore credibility of U.S. foreign policy in the region. Favoring interests over values has been unsuccessful for the U.S. foreign policy over the past decades. It is about time to change.

In his speech, Obama has already set the stage to resist a declaration of a Palestinian state in September. It is unclear how this “new foreign policy approach” will support the youth demand in Damascus for democracy and resist the calls for freedom from occupation in Ramallah. Youth uprisings in the Arab world are not against certain individual rulers. Rather, they are motivated by the desire for freedom, justice, and dignity. These are universal values that are not limited to the youth of Egypt and Tunisia. Palestinian refugees too share these values. They also know how to make use of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. In fact, some Palestinian youth are concerned that protest is their line of business and is being exercised by the entire region aside from the Palestinian territories. 

Especially in light of the continued expansion of Israeli settlements, the Palestinian Authority does not seem willing to entertain the idea of withdrawing its proposal to declare a Palestinian State in September. The Obama speech failed to establish ground to deal with a possible diplomatic confrontation in September. U.S. foreign policy in the region will continue to struggle trying to demonstrate some harmony between unambiguous support to the aspirations of the youth in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria, and vetoing a “self determination” proposal for the Palestinians. In the meantime, the refugees will continue to see the President’s speech as a slap in the face for their long suffering. No wonder George Mitchell resigned just days before the speech was delivered.