WASHINGTON — Calling the Arab Spring a historic opportunity to reshape a key part of the world, President Obama committed the U.S. on 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 in his speech at the State Department 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.
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 today 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 is 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."