WASHINGTON — Calling the Arab Spring a historic opportunity to reshape a key part of the world, President Barack Obama committed the U.S. Thursday to democracy movements shaking friend and foe alike across the Middle East and North Africa.
He vowed financial help to emerging democracies in Egypt and Tunisia, repeated his criticism of dictators in Libya and Syria and, for the first time, criticized the pro-U.S. government of Bahrain for its crackdown on demonstrators.
Yet he tempered that criticism with a recognition that Bahrain — which hosts the U.S. 5th Fleet as it keeps sea lanes open for oil shipping — also is fighting interference from Iran. And he didn't mention key U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, an authoritarian regime whose oil is vital to U.S. interests — one sign of how he continues to try to balance U.S. interests with the idealistic values he wants to project into the region.
He also moved to jump-start peace talks between Israel and Palestinians, urging that both sides start reconciliation talks, setting Israel's borders that existed before the 1967 war as a baseline.
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Overall, it was unclear whether Obama's attempt to frame changes in the tinderbox of the world would have much impact.
Israel rejected the idea of starting talks with any hint of the borders that existed before a 1967 military victory gave it control of new territory.
"Indefensible," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement from Israel shortly before he left for a meeting Friday with Obama in Washington.
Analysts suggested that there was little else in the speech that would influence people across the region.
"The speech will be more or less ignored," said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan who's the head of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I was a bit surprised at how little new he had in his speech. All in all, it was a speech that was large on platitudes but had little actionable steps."
"It was a speech about American values rather than interests," said Haim Malka, the deputy Middle East Program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right research center in Washington. "The question is how that plays out."
Obama said the world stood at a pivot point after the end of combat in Iraq, progress against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the death of Osama bin Laden and popular uprisings against autocratic governments. Noting their origins in the protests of ordinary people, he likened those uprisings to the onset of the American Revolution and the American civil rights movement.
"Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest," he said. "It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy."
He vowed to forgive up to $1 billion in Egyptian debt to help boost its economy, particularly among young people, where unemployment nears 30 percent and despair could feed a return to violence. He also pledged to guarantee up to another $1 billion in new Egyptian borrowing. He said the U.S. also would aid Tunisia and would help steer assistance across the region to create jobs. He urged efforts to combat corruption.
He lambasted Syrian President Bashar Assad for his brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, but he stopped short of calling on Assad to step down.
And he criticized U.S. allies Yemen and Bahrain; the latter has shut down democracy protests and bulldozed dozens of Shiite mosques, presumably to strike back at the Shiites it believes are working with Iran to undermine the Bahraini government.
"If America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for change consistent with the principles that I have outlined today," Obama said.
"That is true in Yemen, where President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power. And that is true, today, in Bahrain."
Obama walked a fine line in his speech, though, striving to align the United States with popular demands for democracy, human and religious rights, and economic justice while trying to avoid enraging the authoritarian regimes that the United States has been allied with for decades.
His declaration that the U.S. will help promote the “core principles” of freedom of speech, assembly and religion and the “right to chose your own leaders” necessarily means backing demands that mean at the very least an end to those regimes’ absolute power, and at the most their elimination.
His words were almost certain to further anger and alienate allied rulers, especially the Saudi monarchy, which is already deeply upset with Obama for supporting the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Yet on Bahrain, Obama tempered his mild criticism with an acknowledgement that Bahrain may be fighting more than its own people.
"Bahrain is a long-standing 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," he said.
He added, however, that "We have insisted publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail."
Obama made it clear that his administration would continue taking a firmer line on some countries, such as Libya and Syria, than it would on those close to the U.S., such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen.
“There will be times when our short-term interests do not align perfectly with our long-term vision of the region,” he said.
Obama didn't mention Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest petroleum producer, whose Sunni Muslim monarchy forcefully smothered demands for political rights and an end to discrimination against Shiites who dominate the kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern Province.
Obama also made no mention of the central role that Saudi Arabia has played in helping the Sunni monarchy of Bahrain brutally crush a pro-democracy movement dominated by Shiites, who compose 70 percent of the population.
Turning to Israel and the Palestinians, Obama flatly opposed a proposed September vote in the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state on anti-Israel terms.
"For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure," he said.
He also urged that peace talks resume using pre-1967 borders as a starting point. "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," he said.
He said that resolving the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees could wait until later, after talks resumed, and he took no stand on those controversies.
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