BOSTON — Airforce One navigated a rough patch of weather Wednesday as U.S. President Barack Obama tried to touch down for a graduation ceremony at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. and then onto a campaign fundraiser here in Boston.
Heavy cloud cover forced the president’s plane to pull out of its first landing before trying again successfully.
But that New England squall is nothing compared to the perilous conditions Obama will need to navigate Thursday when he lands his much-anticipated speech on the Middle East.
Even for a president with great gifts as an orator, the hot winds of change in the Middle East will present an extraordinary challenge for what is shaping up to be a crucial policy speech.
When Obama addresses the nation tomorrow from Washington, he will need to seize an historic moment of both promise and peril in the Middle East by articulating a new way forward for American foreign policy in the region. Obama will need to voice support for the pro-democracy movements sweeping the region, but not allow that support to appear like America is meddling.
And he will need to prevent his administration from being open to accusations of double standards.
It will be very difficult to pull that off.
The Arab Spring has brought hope for democracy to countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where people took to the streets and toppled U.S.-backed dictators. In Syria, it has wrought seething violence as the government has brutally suppressed demonstrations. In Libya, it has left the country embroiled in a civil war. The United States has taken part in the U.N.-backed “no fly zone” in Libya and carried out bombing raids to protect rebel-held cities. But the United States has played a far less active role in Bahrain, where the U.S.-backed government and Saudi forces have aggressively sought to crush the opposition movement.
And now the Arab Spring has sprouted demonstrations by Palestinians along Israel’s borders where violence erupted as the Israelis sought to put down the demonstration with a use of force that killed 15 people.
All of these cross winds were blowing through the region while the U.S. military carried out a daring and well-executed raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.
Bringing the Al Qaeda leader to justice has suddenly opened up the possibility of a timely drawdown of forces in Afghanistan this summer as well as hopes for an accelerated exit from Iraq. And it has led many to believe that the apocalyptic ideology of Al Qaeda is giving way to a social and political movement for change spurred on by Facebook and Twitter.
But how does Obama give shape to all of these events and forge a new foreign policy out of them?
How does he square the yearning for democracy in Egypt with the fact that his administration was slow to recognize the revolution in Cairo as it unfolded and ultimately toppled President Hosni Mubarak, who the United States had so carefully propped up for more than 30 years?
How does he support the revolutions that brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of Cairo and Tunis, but also calm the nerves of oil-rich allies like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain?
White House officials are suggesting that Obama will express support for pro-democracy movements across the Arab world, but they hasten to add that the president will stick to a pragmatic, case-by-case approach rather than a broad policy shift.
“He believes the future of the region will be written by the people of the region and that what we’re seeing is an expression of long pent-up desire for greater freedom, greater prosperity and greater engagement in the political process in these countries,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday.
But what remains to be seen is just how Obama articulates his belief that the Arab people deserve “greater freedom, greater prosperity and greater engagement” with the fact that for them to have those cherished goals will almost inevitably undercut America’s own interests in the region as well as the interests of its closest regional ally, Israel.
American foreign policy in the Middle East and its desire to keep the region’s oil flowing efficiently onto the world markets has been built around seeking stability through autocratic regimes that are now crumbling.
The status quo will not stand.
Rami Khouri, the acclaimed author and editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star, explained this well in a recent column. He said that the Arab world has grown impatient with “the same old, ugly problem of double standards in Western governments’ treatment of Arab issues.”
Khouri advises Obama to stay true to core American and universal principles and “not recoil and then retrench in the company of known dictators and ruling thugs once the momentum for democratic change slows down.”
Instead, Khouri urges Obama to reach higher and declare that “liberty is the birthright of all human beings and the U.S. supports the absolute and undifferentiated right of all those who struggle … to achieve and enjoy those rights, including Arabs and Iranians.”
Obama has articulated these yearnings well in two impressive speeches. One was in Cairo in the summer of 2009 when he sought to heal the sharp divisions that the war in Iraq had caused with the Muslim world. And the other was at the U.N. last September when he called for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal within a year, an attempt to jump-start negotiations that remain stalled.
Expectations in the Arab world for universal rights of liberty like the ones Khouri articulates cause concern in Israel, analysts say, where they are sometimes seen as a rhetorical code for a Palestinian state.
Indeed, the Palestinian leadership is pressing for a vote on a U.N. resolution that would recognize Palestinian statehood.
Washington insiders say Obama’s speech will likely emphasize that the United States is opposed to such an effort and that direct talks between the parties, not unilateral efforts, are the best way to achieve peace and a two-state solution.
Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told the Jerusalem Post that Israel is not expecting any surprises in the speech and quelled rumors in Israel that Obama would call on Israel to return to its 1967 borders and take part in a peace plan that will divide Jerusalem. He also said that it was his understanding that only a small portion of the speech would be devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As Oren wrote in Foreign Policy, Israel sees this moment as proof that Israel is an indispensable ally in a volatile region at a time of great uncertainty.
But even if that is true, the Israeli-Palestinian issue looms over all American policy in the region particularly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu poised to speak before the U.S. Congress next week. And a shadow has been cast over the process with the news that the U.S. Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell was resigning after failing to create a breakthrough in peace negotiations, which have settled into a bitter and resentful stalemate that constantly threatens to break out into violent conflict.
And so there is much at stake in this speech. It offers a moment for an American president to define a new way forward amid breathtaking events in the Middle East.
But it also comes with the risk that the president will fall back to a status quo that the Arab world has made loud and clear is no longer tolerable.
These cross currents create a dangerous wind shear as Obama tries to land his message. So tray tables up. Turn off all electronic devices. And keep your seatbelts securely fastened.