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Obama's middle ground in a restless region

By Isobel Coleman, Special to CNN
Obama on Arab Spring: "It is the people themselves who launched these movements and must determine their outcome."
Obama on Arab Spring: "It is the people themselves who launched these movements and must determine their outcome."
  • Isobel Coleman: Obama speech meant to reconcile his varying responses to Arab Spring
  • She says he made clear U.S. backs reform, but would not lead; financial aid promised
  • He said new borders for Israel, Palestine should be set at 1967 lines, she says
  • Coleman: Speech sought middle ground but is bound to disappoint both sides

Editor's note: Isobel Coleman is the author of "Paradise Beneath Her Feet" and a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama's much-anticipated speech Thursday on the Middle East was bound to disappoint.

In contrast to his speech in Cairo two years ago that "only" aspired to help reset America's relations with the Muslim world, this speech was intended to make sense of Washington's inconsistent response to the Arab Spring.

That inconsistency stems from the fundamental dilemma that while the U.S. reiterates its support for democracy and freedom, when push comes to shove, it often has strategic interests at stake that conflict with uninhibited support of those values.

During the past six months, this tension has been on full display throughout the Middle East, as Washington hesitated to abandon longtime allies in Tunisia and Egypt in the face of massive protests, has equivocated on events in Bahrain and Yemen, has reluctantly engaged in Libya and been restrained in response to the bloodshed in Syria.

Speaking as much to the American people as to those in the Middle East, Obama explained that the change that has rocked the region "does not come easily."

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He re-emphasized that the U.S. would continue to pursue its core interests, which he listed as: countering terrorism, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, securing the free flow of commerce (read: oil), safeguarding the security of the region, standing up for Israel's security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.

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However, echoing Condoleezza Rice's statement in 2005 that the United States had pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East and "achieved neither," Obama insisted that the "status quo is not sustainable. Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder." Notably, there was no mention of Saudi Arabia, the place where American interests and values most glaringly diverge.

Threading the needle between strategic interests and values when they conflict is the challenge of policy. Here Obama was characteristically cautious, admitting that there will be times when short-term interests do not align perfectly with long-term goals.

He announced that the U.S. would promote reform across the region and support transitions to democracy, but made clear that Washington would not lead: "It is the people themselves who launched these movements and must determine their outcome."

Arabs hoping for a sweeping statement of apology for America's past support of tyrants or a clear commitment to support peaceful protests will be disappointed. So, too, will Americans looking for an articulation of some grand vision to guide strategy. Authoritarian allies will remain uneasy about the reliability of the United States.

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He acknowledged the economic drivers of the Arab Spring and the tenuous economic circumstances of Tunisia and Egypt. Obama also announced new economic initiatives designed to bolster democratic transitions. Debt relief and loan guarantees of up to $1 billion each are on the table, as is a $2 billion fund with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation to support private investment. Various trade initiatives are being discussed.

Obama is right to focus on economic reform. The urgent issues of youth unemployment, rising commodity prices and faltering economic growth have the potential to sink any democratic transition. Yet mobilizing domestic support for new foreign assistance to the region in light of America's own fiscal woes and concerns about what type of leadership will emerge in these democratizing countries will be a challenge.

Finally, Obama also addressed the stalemated Arab-Israeli conflict, saying that a drive for lasting peace is now "more urgent than ever." For the first time, he stated that borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps to achieve a viable Palestine and a secure Israel. He left open the highly emotional issues of dividing Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinians.

In his speech, once again Obama sought a policy middle ground, this time between those urging him to lay out a bold plan for peace and those arguing that the situation is far too volatile for any progress on this intractable issue.

The problem with the middle ground is that it leaves both sides disappointed.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Isobel Coleman.

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