Barack Obama is caught, as his compatriots are so fond of saying, between a rock and a hard place. Yesterday he attempted to set out a coherent new vision of American policy in the Middle East. He was not persuasive.
His mission was a tough one. Although he could begin by claiming credit for the death of Osama bin Laden, and suggest that the momentum of the Taliban had been broken – so assisting plans for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan – he could not conceal the inconsistent nature of Washington's response to the recent uprisings in the Arab world. As the whirlwind of change began in Egypt, Mr Obama dragged his feet over calling for Hosni Mubarak to go. In Libya he acted more swiftly, but in a very limited way. Over Yemen he hesitated. Bahrain received only the mildest of rebukes over its political repression. On Syria he was silent, until very recently. The world will continue to pass its judgements not on what Mr Obama said yesterday, in his attempt to reposition the US as a champion of the Arab world's newly-emerging democracy movements, but on Washington's actions.
The rock and the hard place are America's economic interest and its political values. Its short-term interests do not coincide with its long term vision. To his credit Mr Obama last night acknowledged that. But he now needs to demonstrate that he will place the promotion of democracy abroad above the protection of US oil supplies. The $2bn aid, trade and debt packages to Egypt and Tunisia, and the pledges to help with the repatriation of embezzled assets, are not enough to prove that. Nor, welcome though it was, is his firmer line with the government of Syria over the shooting of demonstrators and repression.
The characteristically high-flown Obama rhetoric did nothing to disguise the unanswered question at the heart of the speech: the lack of progress in the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The US president offered little new here. He endorsed, as he has in the past, the idea of a solution based on two states, a viable Palestine and a secure Israel. The most interesting thing he had to say was that a Palestinian state must be non-militarised but sovereign and "contiguous" – a notion with implications for the West Bank and Gaza which hardliners in Israel will not like at all.
Though he chided Israel for its policy of continuing to build new settlements on Arab land, however, there was no suggestion that Washington is about to take the tougher line that is required. Rather he appeared to endorse Israeli reservations about talking to the Palestinians now that the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, have come together. Mr Obama placed the ball firmly in the Palestinians' court, requiring Hamas now to recognise, as it should, the right of Israel to exist. But he should also have said that, when that happens, Israel must negotiate with a Palestinian movement that includes Hamas. There would no longer be any reason to shun that group of Palestinian opinion.
Barack Obama is a subtle and shrewd negotiator. Later this week he will meet privately with Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, after which he will address the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the biggest pro-Israel lobby in US domestic politics. It is to be hoped that he has more to say in private to Mr Netanyahu than he has revealed in this speech, or more, indeed, than he would be prepared to admit to AIPAC.
This was billed as Barack Obama's most important speech on the Middle East since his Cairo speech two years ago, when he called for a new beginning in relations between the US and the Muslim world. It did not deliver. We can only hope that behind the scenes he is doing a good deal more.Reuse content