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Obama's Middle East Speech: Much Ado About Little

It was a cautious speech, and one filled with more bromides than specifics.

05.19.11 3:28 PM ET

The president's speech will not qualify for inclusion on his greatest-hits album. It contained little that was new and for the most part skirted around the very big questions. Whether his reticence to strike out boldly reflects reported differences within his inner circle or a prudent attitude of watch and wait in the face of the changes unfolding in the Arab world is difficult to say.

The president's commitment to supporting democratic reform and economic development is unexceptionable. Yet the speech offered more bromides—"change cannot be denied"—than specifics. The promised billion-dollar debt relief for Egypt, for example, makes for a nice gesture but is unlikely to produce any large-scale improvement in that country's torpid economy. Of course, it's not at all clear that Congress is in the mood to underwrite anything like a Marshall Plan for Arab countries transitioning to democracy since the near-term effect would be to increase the size of the U.S. federal deficit.

In all of the references to change—"the status quo cannot stand" was a phrase used twice—the sensitive topic of Saudi Arabia was never mentioned. If indeed the United States will insist upon recognition of the rights of free speech, assembly, and worship along with equality for women, then Washington is on a collision course with the world's No. 1 oil exporter. One imagines, perhaps too cynically, that the Saudis received advance assurances from Washington that such imperatives did not apply to them. Give Obama credit for this much: he admitted that America's "short-term interests" wouldn't necessarily coincide with its "long-term vision." Some might call that hypocrisy, others politics.

Obama suggested that the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian "right to return" be tabled for now. Why any Palestinian negotiator would agree to that approach is beyond me.

The hold-your-breath portion of the speech came last, when the president turned to the Israeli-Palestinian question. No doubt peace-process exegetes will spend the next days poring over the president's words attempting to divine their inner meaning. For my part, I noted three things of interest. First, although implicitly chastising Israel for continuing to expand its settlements, he was notably silent on their future. Second, after describing the basis for a settlement in terms of a "viable Palestine" living alongside a "secure Israel," Obama then offered this refinement: Palestine would be a "sovereign demilitarized state." I take this to mean that Palestine will stand in relation to Israel as Canada does to the United States. That appears to work for Canada (we last invaded during the War of 1812); whether demilitarization will satisfy a Palestinian definition of sovereignty seems less likely. Third, in terms of working through so-called final status issues, Obama suggested that the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian "right to return" be tabled for now, with attention given to questions of borders. Why any Palestinian negotiator would agree to that approach is beyond me.

Practical next steps? A replacement for George Mitchell as chief peace processor? Nada.

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University.