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The news in Obama’s speech

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Charles Krauthammer
May 20, 2011
— Herewith President Obama’s May 19 Middle East speech, annotated:
“It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.”

With this, Barack Obama openly, unreservedly and without a trace of irony or self-reflection adopts the Bush Doctrine, which made the spread of democracy the key U.S. objective in the Middle East.


“Too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere. The West was blamed as the source of all ills.”

Note how even Obama’s rationale matches Bush’s. Bush argued that because the roots of 9/11 were to be found in the deflected anger of repressed Middle Eastern peoples, our response would require a democratic transformation of the region.


“We have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self-determination of individuals.”

A fine critique of exactly the kind of “realism” the Obama administration prided itself for having practiced in its first two years.


How far did this concession to Bush go? Note Obama’s example of the democratization we’re aiming for. He actually said:


“In Iraq, we see the promise of a multiethnic, multisectarian democracy. There, the Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence for a democratic process … Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region.”

Hail the Bush-Obama doctrine.


“President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition (to democracy), or get out of the way.”

The only jarring note in an otherwise interesting, if convoluted, attempt to unite all current “Arab Spring” policies under one philosophical rubric. Convoluted because the Bahrain part was unconvincing and the omission of Saudi Arabia was unmistakable.


Syria’s Assad leading a transition to democracy? This is bizarre and appalling. Assad has made all-out war on his people—shooting, arresting, executing, even using artillery against cities. Yet Obama is still holding out the olive branch when, if anything, he should be declaring Assad as illegitimate as Qaddafi. Clearly, some habits of engagement/appeasement die hard.


“A lasting peace will involve … Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people.”

Meant to reassure Israelis that the administration rejects the so-called right of return of Palestinian refugees. They would return to Palestine, not Israel—Palestine being their homeland, and Israel (which would cease to be Jewish if flooded with refugees) being a Jewish state. But why use code for an issue on which depends Israel’s existence?


“The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”

A new formulation favorable to maximal Arab demands. True, that idea has been the working premise for negotiations since 2000. But no president had ever before publicly and explicitly endorsed the 1967 lines.


Even more alarming to Israel is Obama’s omission of previous American assurances to recognize “realities on the ground” in adjusting the 1967 border, meaning U.S. agreement that Israel would incorporate the thickly populated, close-in settlements in any land swap. By omitting this, Obama leaves the impression of indifference to the fate of these settlements. This would be a significant change in U.S. policy and a heavy blow to the Israeli national consensus.


“The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves — in a sovereign and contiguous state.”
Normal U.S. boilerplate except for one thing: Obama refers to Palestinian borders with Egypt, Jordan and Israel. But the only Palestinian territory bordering Egypt is Gaza. How do you get contiguity with Gaza? Does Obama’s map force Israel to give up a corridor of territory connecting the West Bank and Gaza? This is an old Palestinian demand which would cut Israel in two. Is this simply an oversight? Or a new slicing up of Israel?

Finally, in calling for both parties to “come back to the table,” the Palestinians have to explain “the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas. … How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?”


Not a strong statement about Washington rejecting any talks involving Hamas. A mere placeholder.


On the other hand, Obama made no mention here of Israeli settlements. A mere oversight? Or has Obama finally realized that his making a settlement freeze a precondition for negotiations—something never demanded before he took office—was a disastrous unforced error? One can only hope.


Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for the Washington Post. His email address is letters@charleskrauthammer.com.

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