Paul Pillar

The Oblique Approach to Middle East Policy

The buildup to President Obama’s speech on the Middle East on Thursday did not get quite as much predelivery hype as his last big speech pertinent to the region: the one in Cairo in June 2009. But it got a lot, and so the actual product was bound to be somewhat of a disappointment. Perhaps a statement of principles rather than an agenda for action was all that could reasonably be expected, and a statement of principles—especially already well-established principles—is mostly what the president presented. One listened in vain for anything that could be described as specific solutions to the region’s knottiest or most pressing problems.

On Libya, for example—in what may have been the weakest passage in the speech—there was no clarification of goals for an intervention in which the stated objectives have meandered between humanitarianism and regime change. There was no projected path for either ending the civil war or sending Qaddafi on his way. There was no identification of how far the administration intends to go in providing material support to the rebels’ interim council (a subject raised by Ali Suleiman Aujali, former Libyan ambassador to the United States and now the council’s U.S. representative, when he joined me right after the speech on a panel on Libya organized by the Middle East Institute). There were instead the previous speculations about a bloodbath if foreigners had not intervened, and the argument that without intervention other dictators would have decided that killing people is the way to stay in power (even though in Syria—the subject of the next passage in the speech—the regime seems to have decided that anyway).

Although policy dilemmas in the Middle East did not get resolved, a strength of the speech was to acknowledge that such dilemmas exist. In was in this vein that the president said “there will be times when our short-term interests don’t align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region,” and “at times our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for consistent change.” The president also acknowledged how much resentment and distrust had developed between Washington and the Middle East, saying “a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world” and citing his Cairo speech as the start of his effort to make that change. But obliqueness appeared in refraining from mentioning more specific causes of that distrust having to do with U.S. policies (most notably in recent years the Iraq War) and not mentioning the single biggest cause of that distrust over the past half century, which is the association of the United States with Israeli policies and practices, especially regarding the occupation dating from 1967. Any such mention would have violated a longstanding U.S. political taboo, of course, so the only mention of Israel in connection with anti-Western or anti-U.S. sentiment was in a passage that attributed such sentiment to the attempt by regional leaders to divert attention from domestic problems.

Mr. Obama appropriately devoted a generous portion of the speech to that occupation problem, although without—notwithstanding quick-reaction commentary and news coverage that focuses on his mention of 1967 borders as a starting point—really breaking new ground. It has been starkly obvious for many years that the principles he voiced would have to be the basis for any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He also did not break procedural new ground, notwithstanding his mention of trying to define borders before tackling the issues of Jerusalem and refugees.

And yet, even though the heavy hand of political correctness was apparent in what was mentioned and what was not, there were in the syntax some suggestions that this president intends to grab opportunities to keep the festering Israeli-Palestinian sore from festering indefinitely. Particularly interesting were a couple of passages that referred to Hamas and its recent agreement with Fatah. There was the usual (and as usual, misleading) reference to “delegitimizing” Israel, and more legitimate references to terror, rejection and rights to exist. But the sentences were simple declaratory statements of what needs to happen or needs to be avoided if peace is ever to be attained. They were not the sort of accusatory, worst-case assessments that are so commonly heard. The Fatah-Hamas agreement, the president said, “raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel" (quite right), and “in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide” credible answers to those questions (right again).

Most appetites—of those on different sides of the issues concerned—will be left unsatisfied by this speech. That is unsurprising, given the political realities with which the president has to work. But there was enough in the appetizer to raise hope that later—even if only in a possible second term, when Mr. Obama will never have to face reelection again—the president will serve up some real meat.