President Obama's Middle East Speech: George Will vs. Edward Walker

Two experts analyze the president's speech and its potential impact.

May 19, 2011, 1:48 PM

May 19, 2011— -- In a speech announcing new policy and economic initiatives for the Arab world, President Obama today embraced the so-called Arab Spring and the change that is sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

The president promised to promote democratic ideals in the region and stressed its importance to the United States.

Read more about the president's speech HERE, and some reactions HERE.

Here are two opinions on the president's message and whether it comes at the right time.

George Will: On Arab Spring, Obama Spoke Too Soon

George Will is a columnist and writer and an ABC News contributor.

Barack Obama thinks he must incessantly talk about Middle Eastern events that he can affect only marginally, if at all. But before firing up his teleprompter, he should have something helpful to say. Thursday, he did not.

"We face an historic opportunity." "There will be good days and bad days." Consent is good, coercion is bad. Women should be emancipated. Yes, and an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Syria's President Assad "must" do this or that? And if he does not?

Regarding the Arab Spring, the president should remember Burke's axiom: Before we congratulate people on their freedom, we should see what use they make of it.

Obama should have said nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his prior statements (about Israel housing construction, and a deadline for a peace settlement) having made matters worse. Obama's idea--Israel's, too--is "two states for two people." Now, there is nothing more to be said until a Palestinian leader also says that.

Obama's dilation on the 1967 borders makes matters worse: Borders are what negotiations are supposed to be about, not what is to be stipulated before negotiations.

Israelis know this: No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria. Egypt, perhaps with the Muslim Brotherhood ascendant, may move away from its (chilly) peace with Israel, away from cooperation with Israel in preventing the flow of arms to genocidal Hamas in Gaza. The new alliance of Fatah with Hamas, which is devoted to Israel's destruction, means that Israel no longer has an interlocutor for the so-called "peace process."

The problem is not just that, as Abba Eban said, Palestinians never miss an opportunity for missing an opportunity. Rather, the problem is that the Palestinian leaders' oldest tradition is bad choices: They supported the central powers in the First World War, Hitler in the Second World War, Stalin and Moscow in the Cold War and Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. The alliance between Fatah and Hamas continues this tradition.

Obama's absentminded military intervention in a third Islamic nation -- in the civil war in Libya's tribal society, supposedly to protect civilians -- has made his muted response to Syria's massacre of civilians excruciatingly embarrassing. So, again, regarding the Arab Spring, remember: When, in the third quarter of the 20th Century, Zhou Enlai was asked if the French Revolution in the third quarter of the 18th century was a good thing, he answered: "It's too early to say."

Former Ambassador Edward Walker: Speech Timely and Necessary

Edward Walker is a professor of global politics at Hamilton College and was ambassador to Israel and Egypt in the Clinton Administration.

The president's speech on the Middle East was clear about where he wants to go and not so clear on how to get there.

The speech was timely and necessary as the president prepares for his talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Obama needed to put out a healthy reminder that he has not changed his view of the situation or how it must be resolved. Although there was nothing particularly surprising or new in what he said, his words will not be entirely welcome to PM Netanyahu who reacted quickly and negatively on the question of borders and settlements.

The president's prescription for the region and for U.S. policy was quite detailed. Starting from the base of democratic rights, he emphasized the political right to freedom of expression, even if we do not like the message. He will likely find those words difficult to defend in Congress and with the American public if free and fair elections or the resulting governments engage in anti-American policies.

In fact, if we take his words seriously, it will be very hard for America to live up to his promises. His most detailed discussion was on the economies of states in transition and the need to help. But the problems require more than statements and debt relief, if we are to help countries meet rising expectations in the region given the serious structural and population problems that many Middle East countries face.

His call for self-determination for people as opposed to states is a direct challenge, not only to states in the Middle East but also to autocratic regimes everywhere. And it represents a significant change in our traditional approach to state based international relations. As such, it looks more like a talking point than a realistic goal. The entire thrust of his speech was that we would be going over the heads of governments in the region to respect the will of the people and particularly of the next generation.

He was careful, however, to herald the Arab spring as having Arab ownership, and not as the product of U.S. policy. His attempt to distinguish between the robust U.S. and allied policy toward Libya and the softball policy toward Syria fell short of explaining the reasons for differentiation.

It appeared that Obama still clings to the hope that Bashar al Assad will change his mind about his violent approach to the demonstrators although I see no evidence to support this hope. By all accounts, the Syrians think repression is working. Since the Syrians have been isolated for years, the threat of further isolation and meaningless sanctions is not likely to cause much heartburn among the Allawite leaders who have proven their mettle in terms of violent and brutal repression of their own people over the years.

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