Obama's Grand Plans for MENA

With the administration’s very special envoy Senator John Kerry in the front row and a glowing introduction/budget plug from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama gave The Speech today. As widely hinted recently, economic development made up a good chunk of the president’s vision for the U.S. role in the Middle East and North Africa, in this his first public discussion of the region since popular uprisings began six months ago. He laid out concrete steps Washington will be taking to promote economic reform in governments transitioning to democracy (and Washington will be supporting all governments transitioning to democracy), while putting the spotlight on self-determination and the promotion of human rights. He called for the formation of a Palestinian state with the borders outlined in 1967, punted the question of Syria to a discussion of Iran and kept to the tried-and-true Libya talking points.

The economic buzz lately has been centered on whether Obama would outline a new Marshall Plan for the Middle East and North Africa, and the president certainly did put reform and development of the region’s markets on center stage. He said the democratic sentiments and accomplishments of the past few months can only be solidified with accompanying economic growth and broadened prosperity. The administration intends to focus on “trade not just aid, investment not just assistance” to promote reform and integrate these markets into the global economy, according to Obama, and it has distinct plans to make that happen—starting with Egypt and Tunisia.

The IMF and the World Bank, the president said, are already drawing up plans to modernize the Egyptian and Tunisian economies. He promised that Washington would extend up to $10 billion in debt relief to Egypt in particular, along with a $1 billion line of credit. The U.S., alongside the international community, will work to encourage investment into economies of the region, with OPEC establishing its own $2 billion private-investment facility. And, in addition to helping states clamp down on corruption, Washington plans to set up a “trade and investment partnership initiative” to encourage non-oil sector growth. Obama likened the current non-oil exports of the entire region to Switzerland, and continuing the European metaphor, used the EU as the model for regional integration.

Of course, in a speech about the protests that have rocked the region, Obama couldn’t leave out the grander sentiments of self-determination and democracy. And he began the speech making it very clear that Washington is not interested in imposing anything on anyone, one of many talking points that seemed aimed at differentiating Obama from his predecessor. “We must proceed with a sense of humility,” the president noted, “It’s not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo.”

Naturally, he admitted, that might mean we don’t always get what we want, but we must stay the course, opposing government-sponsored repression, supporting universal rights and encouraging political and economic reform. The administration will support all groups engaged in the democratic transition, even if they don’t “square with our worldview,” Obama pledged. Much discussion of late has focused on the role of Islamist groups in particular in governments in the region. The president noted that the only things Washington intends to oppose are attempts to restrict the rights of others.

Obama offered quite a few lines aimed at making sure the world knows America isn’t just in this for itself. Citing the mistrust that “runs both ways,” with Americans fearing the spread of extremism and the people of the region fearing Washington’s unfeeling pursuit of its own interests, Obama argued that a drastic change of approach is needed: “We must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuits of [our up-to-this-point-core] interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind.” Putting distance between himself and the hardnosed world of realpolitik, the president said that Washington most prove to the world that “America values the dignity of street vendor more than raw power of dictator.” Repression is not a stable and lasting policy.

On Syria, Obama condemned the government’s harsh crackdown on protesters and told Assad to get on board with the calls for reform or “get out of the way.” He then deftly switched the subject to Iran, criticizing Damascus for seeking out Tehran’s help in the crackdowns and reminding his audience that the “first peaceful protests were in the streets of Tehran.”

For those critics who have derided U.S. administrations for cozying up to dictators, Obama intends to work with the less democratic leaders the U.S. is in contact with to promote reform. In Bahrain and Yemen, he said, Washington is both publicly and privately encouraging leaders to make good on promises of reform. He said it is the job of the governments to open up the door to dialogue with the opposition if lasting and stable change is to take place. But “real reform does not come at the ballot box alone,” Obama added, arguing for engagement with the broader civil society and the youth.