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Obama mixes clarity with evasion on Middle East

By Salman Shaik, Special to CNN
  • Salman Shaikh: Thursday Obama tried to address skepticism on approach to Arab Spring
  • Obama said he supported self-determination, reforms and offered some aid, says Shaikh
  • But his remarks on regime change in Syria, Yemen lacked force, he says
  • Shaikh: Obama gave clearest direction yet on Israel-Palestine, in calling for 1967 borders

Editor's note: Salman Shaikh is the Director of the Brookings Doha Center and Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution

(CNN) -- On Thursday President Obama attempted another "new beginning" with the peoples of the Middle East in his address on the "Arab Spring." He aimed to overcome the skepticism that now hangs over his administration's policies in the region and the growing sentiment that with the recent changes in the region, U.S. influence was, in any case, fast fading.

He aligned himself with the struggles for dignity and "self determination" of the peoples of the region. He committed the United States to promoting reform and supporting transitions to democracy, especially in Egypt and Tunisia. And his assertion "that we can not hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights," must be welcomed, as must be the financial support offered to Egypt and Tunisia.

But Obama's claim that U.S. values and interests could be aligned with the values and hopes of the region's people was less than convincing. A good start would have been a clear acknowledgement, not a vague reference to "suspicions," of past mistakes in U.S. policy in pursuit of its own narrower interests in the region.

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Only the next few days and weeks will determine whether the United States can give added impetus to the struggle of people in particular states facing violent repression. To date, the administration has struggled to chart a consistent and effective path that would deter friends and foes in the Middle East that have led the counter-revolution. Obama acknowledged that this may also be the case in the future as "short-term interests may not align with our long-term vision of the region."

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He should be commended for his tough line on Bahrain and his uncompromising message to the ruling Khalifa family that only dialogue with the opposition and a political solution, not repression, is the way forward in the kingdom. His one line on Yemen, stressing that President Ali Abdullah Saleh must transfer power, should be followed by real pressure on Saleh to leave the country. His speedy departure would give credibility to Obama's words today.

But on Syria, the president continued to get it wrong, presenting Assad with the implausible choice of leading Syria in a democratic transition or "getting out of the way." Obama will likely have to address the situation in Syria again in the weeks ahead. Let us hope that he will not have to demand that Assad leave after the regime has killed scores more civilians.

Above all, the president and U.S. policy will be judged on its efforts regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Simply, a new beginning with the Arab world can become possible if the United States is perceived to have played a decisive role in brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Obama's statement that the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps is the clearest that he and his administration have been on this important issue.

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Combined with his clear guidance on future security arrangements, Obama has finally laid out parameters on two of the four main issues (the others being Jerusalem and refugees) of the conflict. The problem is that these have come two years too late and serious doubts remains on whether he has the political will and political strategy to push both Israelis and Palestinians.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has already rejected Israel's withdrawal to "indefensible" 1967 borders. The Palestinians will likely take their efforts to have a Palestinian state recognized to the United Nations if serious negotiations do not start soon--despite Obama's explicit rejection of this move.

Obama's words will be judged on results. Having aligned himself closer to their hopes and aspirations for freedom, justice, dignity and peace, this may be President Obama's last chance to enter in to a genuine partnership with the people of the region.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Salman Shaikh.

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