- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2011

President Obama sought Thursday to usher in a new U.S. relationship with the Middle East, promising economic aid to nations engaged in democratic reforms and calling out by name the region’s most belligerent rulers.

Capitalizing on popular uprisings that began in Tunisia and swept through Egypt, Syria, Libya and elsewhere, Mr. Obama said the United States will use “all our influence” to persuade allies and enemies alike to respect human rights and open up their political systems.

“We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator,” Mr. Obama said from an ornate dining room at the State Department in a speech televised around the world. “There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity.”

He proposed a series of economic initiatives, including forgiving $1 billion of Egyptian debt and offering loan guarantees of up to $1 billion for Egypt and Tunisia. Among the diplomats and dignitaries in the audience at State was former Sen. George Mitchell, who recently resigned as Mr. Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East with little to show for his efforts.

The president laid out a thin framework for restarting peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, including a call for Israel to pull back to the borders that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, scheduled to meet with Mr. Obama on Friday, promptly rejected the president’s suggestion.

House Republican Policy Chairman Tom Price, Georgia Republican, said Mr. Obama’s boundary proposal is “directly undermining the strongest democracy in the region.”

Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Mr. Obama was right to call out Syria and Iran as “partners in repression.” But she said he failed to articulate firm consequences.

“We did not hear a plan to vigorously enforce all sanctions laws on the books to bring the greatest pressure possible on the Iranian and Syrian regimes,” she said.

James Carafano, an analyst on defense and security at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, said Iran “rated barely a mention.”

“The new wrinkle is a halfhearted promise to bring economic freedom to the Middle East when he can’t deliver a free-trade deal with South Korea, one of our closest allies,” Mr. Carafano said.

In his speech, Mr. Obama said Syrian President Bashar Assad now has a choice: lead a transition to democracy “or get out of the way.”

The Obama administration this week announced sanctions against Mr. Assad and six other top Syrian officials in response to their bloody crackdown on anti-government demonstrators.

“The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests,” Mr. Obama said. “It must release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests.”

But the president didn’t specify consequences, saying only that Mr. Assad “will continue to be isolated abroad” if he fails to heed Mr. Obama’s warning.

Likewise, on Iran, the president denounced Tehran’s repression of protesters but said the repercussions would be only that the United States would “continue to insist” on greater freedoms for Iranians.
Reaction to Mr. Obama’s speech among Muslims here and abroad was mixed.

Essam Al-Erian, a senior member of Egypt’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, called it “disappointing.”

“American strategy remains as is,” he said. “American cover for dictatorial presidents in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain remains as is. American promises are just promises.”

Kamal Nawash, president of the Free Muslims Coalition in Washington, said Mr. Obama’s approach shows “it is better to establish democracy with free trade and investment rather than regime change.” He praised the speech as Mr. Obama’s best comments yet on the Middle East.

Murhaf Jouejati, a professor of Middle East studies at the National Defense University in Washington, said Mr. Obama was “tougher than ever before on Syria,” although the president stopped short of calling on Mr. Assad to step down.

Mr. Obama, who is backing a NATO bombing campaign in Libya to topple strongman Col. Moammar Gadhafi, began his speech by trying to draw a sharp distinction between his approach to the Middle East and that of his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush.

“We’ve done much to shift our foreign policy following a decade defined by two costly conflicts,” Mr. Obama said. “After years of war in Iraq, we’ve removed 100,000 American troops and ended our combat mission there. In Afghanistan, we’ve broken the Taliban’s momentum, and this July we will begin to bring our troops home and continue a transition to Afghan lead. And after years of war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, we have dealt al Qaeda a huge blow by killing its leader, Osama bin Laden.”

A Pew Research Center poll taken on the eve of Mr. Obama’s speech shows attitudes toward the United States in predominantly Muslim countries remain negative. The survey showed that Mr. Obama is unpopular in Muslim nations except Indonesia, and most Muslims disapprove of the way he has handled calls for democratic change in the Middle East.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.