The president’s speech itself elicited a range of responses—feverish from President Obama’s political opponents while at the same time garnering mostly shrugs of indifference from the people on the streets where the Arab uprisings are taking place. By drawing lines in the sand on promoting democracy and advancing the peace process, the Obama administration risks further contributing to perceptions of a decline in U.S. power in the region. For many years now, U.S. presidents have set goals or challenges to the region only to be ignored with no consequences.
Follow through is essential and should include:
- Dealing with the dynamics in Israel on policy implementation with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
- Continuing the dialogue on restarting peace talks by stating clearly that achieving a two-state solution to the conflict, as part of a more comprehensive regional agreement, remains in the national security interests of the United States and Israel
- Undertaking a more concerted effort to communicate directly to the Israeli public
- Reinvigorating efforts to reach out of the elite bubbles to broader audiences in the Middle East
The Obama administration needs to make the second strategic shift of its term, assessing whether it truly makes sense to spend more than $100 billion in Afghanistan when Egypt could deserve more attention, resources, and personnel. Multiple other challenges exist on other fronts—in Iran, Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and possibly other countries in the region as the Arab Spring continues to bubble along. One of the challenges in developing this regional strategy will be setting the priorities overall—if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority and tactile day-to-day adjustments will be necessary.
President Obama’s recent speech on the Middle East was a step in the right direction. But the real test of whether a clear and effective strategy takes shape will come in applying the principles to the complicated realities of the region and continuing to sell it to the American public in this current political context.
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