In a landmark speech on issues in the Middle East and North Africa, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, has listed the range of what his administration sees as achievements in the region. The changes of government in North Africa, the return of troops from Afghanistan and the killing of Osama Bin Laden were recounted by the President as positive developments in a speech on 19th May 2011 at the State Department.
The US President said that the protests in North Africa came as “a surprise” and that modern technology was helping local populations to claim their freedom. Defining the USA’s role in the region, Mr Obama said:
“For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.”
Anti-Americanism in the region was characterised in the speech as a tool for dictators attempting to distract citizens from discontent at home. Mr Obama is now appealing for support from ordinary people and bypassing the leadership of the region:
“America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator…
“…We must also build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future – particularly young people…
“…Across the region, we intend to provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned, and who speak uncomfortable truths.”
The US leader underlined several times that the West had no involvement in fostering the protests that led to revolution and war in the MENA region:”It’s not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo – it was the people themselves who launched these movements”.
The President set out a policy of opposing regimes which answer “calls for change” with violence, though he was treading carefully when characterising the protests in Bahrain: “Bahrain is a longstanding partner, and we are committed to its security. We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law.”
The President outlined that US policy would support reform and basic rights, as well as broad access to the internet in the interests of open dialogue, even where the views of MENA citizens are opposed to those of the USA. The President also sought to promote religious tolerance and women’s rights.
In the speech, Mr Obama outlined a full program of economic assistance designed to develop the economies of the Middle East and North Africa and aimed at unlocking the huge human potential of a glut of well educated, unemployed young people in the area.
On the issue of Israel, the President renewed calls for a solution:
“a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace…
“…The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.
“As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself -– by itself -– against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.
“…I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.”
The President also mentioned the recent agreement between Hamas and Fatah as a stumbling block to negotiations, but reiterated that peace must be sought.
In his closing remarks, the President reminded the audience that the United States was formed in opposition to an Empire and that a war was fought on its soil in the pursuit of freedom and dignity for enslaved people. His vision of a democratic MENA, trading with the rest of the world and engaging in robust debate against a backdrop of transparent institutions of government is one that he admits will be accompanied by “hardship”.