Obama’s Middle East Speech: Interesting but Unremarkable, says Michael Tomasky

The president sketched the outlines of sensible principles and policies. But as Michael Tomasky points out, nice words need to be followed up by consistent actions.

It’s getting hard to remember the time when Barack Obama had the power to shift the direction of events with a speech. (Did he ever, really? Or is it just a trick of memory?) While I’ve long since stopped anticipating that the president’s “major” speeches would yield much in the way of revelation, they still somehow refuse to meet even these diminishing expectations. We live in an intransigent world, stuffed full of obstinate people and inflexible facts, and words can’t really change that.

That said, today’s Middle East speech, delivered at the State Department (it got under way nearly 30 minutes late, a sign of furious last-minute rewriting), had its good points. It included some actual specifics. There was a section in the middle where Obama vowed that “it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.” He followed this (eventually) with four specific pledges that amount to working with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Congress, and other institutions to reward nations financially when they undertake democratic reforms. Egypt, provided it becomes a democratic society, will be forgiven $1 billion in debt. That’s not chump change—the overall Egyptian debt to the United States is $3.3 billion, according to this report. But such relief is no sure thing in Congress, and in any case it will depend on the outcome of Egyptian elections this September.

Obama did throw down aggressively on the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, in the wake of yesterday’s announced sanctions. “The Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder” is pretty direct, you have to give Obama that. Likewise with: “President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition [to democracy] or get out of the way.” It’s doubtful that Obama can or should carry matters with regard to Syria much farther than this, at least for now. But if nothing else, the United States has now taken a forceful position against a regime massacring its people, which is where the United States ought to be ( though that’s not where it’s always been).

The United States has finally taken a forceful position against the Assad regime, which is massacring its own people in Syria. That is precisely where the United States ought to be.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there was news, although how major it is remains to be seen. The speech marked Obama’s first use of the phrase “1967 borders.” Actually he said “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” but the point was surely received by Bibi Netanyahu, who will visit the White House tomorrow. Mahmoud Abbas has wanted to hear Obama refer to 1967 for some time, and this invocation seems designed to bring him back to the bargaining table. The olive branch to the Israelis in the speech, presumably, was the reassurance that the United States will work to block or defeat the upcoming United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood in September.

All the high-flown rhetoric about democracy and free markets and equal rights and human rights was fine, if not exactly remarkable. But those were for the American audience. The audience in “the region” listened for the specifics. There were enough of them to keep things interesting, but only if the nice words are followed by consistent actions.