Obama to Address Arab Spring in Middle East Speech

U.S. image in the region has turned more negative, despite democratic push.

May 18, 2011, 4:41 PM

May 19, 2011— -- President Obama today will deliver a speech on the Middle East that the White House says will advance specific policy ideas. But it is already being met with skepticism in a region that has been galvanized by the Arab spring.

The White House says the president's 30-40 minute speech, to be made at the State Department later this morning, will discuss the opportunities that lie ahead for Americans and Arabs as historic change envelops the region. The president's speech will cast the United States as being able to play a new role in the Arab world, say senior officials.

"In the last decade, our focus in the region was largely on Iraq, which was a military effort, and on the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the fight against al Qaeda," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday. "That fight against al Qaeda continues, but there is an opportunity in that region to focus on advancing our values and enhancing our security, and that's what the president looks forward to discussing."

Sources say the speech will give the president a chance to assess the historic shift in the Middle East and to push for democracy.

The president will talk specifically about ways that the United States can "best support" positive change.

According to administration officials, the president will attempt to explain to the world how his administration will support the democratic aspirations of the people in the region while focusing on the core principles of nonviolence, support for human rights, political reform and economic reform.

He will announce a series of initiatives focused on Tunisia and Egypt, countries that have already "begun their transitions" to democracy. The initiatives will include better economic management, economic stability, economic modernization and reform, and a framework for trade integration and investment.

For Egypt specifically, the United States is developing a new mechanism that can essentially channel resources by canceling debts from the past to provide investment for the future. The Obama administration will also guarantee up to a billion dollars in borrowing to finance infrastructure in Egypt.

The relief of debt and the investment would cost roughly $1 billion over a few years. The loan guarantees would support roughly an additional billion.

Obama will also push to galvanize support from the international community, reorienting the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to support the transitions unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa.

Obama's speech comes during a time when the region is undergoing unprecedented change. The movement for democracy began with the toppling of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's regime in Tunisia, then the popular revolt in Egypt that brought down the longtime rule of President Hosni Mubarak, and then civil unrest in Libya to overthrow dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Similar uprisings are taking hold across the Arab world. In Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, scores of people have died in recent months as their government attempts to squelch protests.

The United States has so far taken a back seat in the regional movements, with the exception of a few countries, and many in the region says Obama needs to do more. In Libya, the United States is supporting the NATO-led coalition against Gadhafi, although after taking the lead on the mission, the U.S. is now taking a back up role.

On Wednesday, President Obama signed an executive order imposing sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and six other senior government officials. The same day, the White House called Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to push him to sign and implement the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered agreement that would result in his stepping down within a month.

Despite the push toward democracy, the image of the United States in the Muslim world remains negative. In countries like Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan, views are even more negative than they were one year ago, according to a report released this week by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. Those surveyed said they felt the United States disregarded the interests of other countries and acted mostly unilaterally in world affairs.

The survey found that except Indonesia, Obama remains unpopular in Muslim nations and most disapprove of the way he has handled calls for political change roiling the Middle East.

At the same time, sympathy toward Islamic fundamentalists remains strong in some parts. In Pakistan, nearly half of those polled said they they sympathize more with Islamic fundamentalists than those who disagree with them. In the Palestinian territories, that number dropped to 37 percent, with Jordan and Egypt trailing closely behind.

The Israel-Palestine issue remains one of the biggest points of contention. Though that is not expected to be the main part of his speech today, the president will likely mention the issue.

Obama met with Jordan's King Abdullah this week and is scheduled to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- who this week made clear that he won't negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, despite the U.S. push.

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