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The Sweep: Obama's do-over on the Middle East

By Elise Labott, CNN Senior State Department Producer
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New scenes of violence from Syria
  • Obama makes much-anticipated speech on U.S. policy in the Mideast on Thursday
  • Obama made first major address of his administration in Cairo
  • Speech raised expectations that haven't been realized
  • Arab Spring rose in part because disaffected took matters into their own hands

Editor's note: Since becoming CNN's State Department producer in 2000, Elise Labott has covered four secretaries of state and reported from more than 50 countries. Before joining CNN, she covered the United Nations. Follow her on Twitter at @eliselabottcnn.

Washington (CNN) -- In many ways, the promises President Obama made in his 2009 speech to the Arab and Muslim world were doomed from the start. Obama might have sounded like an idealist, but he was thinking like a realist.

The White House billed the Cairo speech as "A New Beginning," and the president made tantalizing promises not only to show progress in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but on encouraging democratic reform, and engaging authoritarian leaders hostile to the United States.

And even with Obama's recently announced sanctions against Syria and Iran, it still may be too little, too late.

From the start it was always unlikely America was going to secure deals with countries like Iran and Syria by promising to help overthrow their leaders.

Iran's Green Movement learned that all too well after the disputed election in 2009. Eager to engage the Iranian regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Obama administration remained on the sideline, as the opposition was effectively -- and violently -- crushed, taking along with it a historic opportunity to win over the Iranian people.

The dashed expectations Obama created hurt U.S. credibility in the region and had diplomats and Middle East experts scratching their heads about how the United States stumbled so quickly after raising hopes.

Before the Arab Spring started, Obama's aides said the president had already begun weighing the risks of continuing to support unpopular and repressive regimes with a strong U.S. push for reform.

An internal White House paper warned that "increased repression could threaten the political and economic stability of some of our allies, leave us with fewer capable, credible partners who can support our regional priorities, and further alienate citizens in the region," a U.S. official told CNN.

First speech was attempt to seduce the region

On Thursday, Obama will try to put America on the right side of history when he talks again about U.S. policy in the Arab and Muslim world.

In his first speech, Obama hoped to seduce the region, rather than bully it like his predecessor President Bush, and he offered a "new era" in U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world.

But more than two years into his term, simply not being Bush won't be enough.

Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister and longtime advocate of Arab reform, says the Middle East is a new environment now, where young men and women are laying their lives on the line for democracy throughout the region. They need to be told their cause is just and how the United States will support them.

"If this is going to be another Cairo speech, forget it," says Muasher, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It was great two years ago, and even then the feedback was mixed because people wanted to see what he would do. If he doesn't have much to add this time, people will not be fooled by it."

It will be tempting for Obama to be upbeat about how the United States fits into the transformation. The death of Osama bin Laden two weeks ago at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs presents an attractive background for him to argue that it was not bin Laden's ideology of extremism but the yearnings for democracy and freedom espoused by the U.S. that drove thousands of youth to take to the streets.

In fact, the change sweeping the Middle East was borne not out of U.S. encouragement, but from their taking matters into their own hands.

The U.S. response has been criticized as being largely sticking a finger in the air to see which way the democratic winds of change were blowing before scrambling to support the winner.

The Obama administration was criticized as sleeping through the revolution in Tunisia, supporting it only after ousted President Ben Ali was already on a plane out of the country.

But after a shaky start in Egypt, the administration eventually supported the democratic forces that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. And Obama's support for military action against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi sent a message to other Arab tyrants that killing thousands of your own people is a line not to be crossed.

Arab Spring hasn't reached the entire region

In Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, the Arab winter is still waiting to thaw.

U.S. policy there is held hostage by a devil's bargain: The U.S. tolerates oppression to maintain stability and protect its interests.

Each country poses its own challenge. And if Obama were to be honest, he would admit that U.S. policy is dictated in part by fears that uprisings in these countries could spiral out of control. And he needs to soothe nervous allies in the region, most of them autocrats, that the United States is not abandoning them.

But such honesty would risk greater questions about U.S. sincerity, which is already being questioned because of seeming inconsistencies in when the United States calls out countries for repelling protests.

Yemeni President President Ali Abdullah Saleh's security forces have clashed with protesters for weeks. Four protesters were killed last week when security forces opened fire on them.

In Bahrain, young members of the Shiite Muslim majority have protested against discrimination, unemployment and corruption -- issues they say the country's Sunni rulers have done little to address.

As Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast negotiator and adviser to six U.S. presidents, notes, Bahrain is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet and a key counterweight to Iran, and Saleh has been an important partner in fighting terror. But Syria's Bashar al-Assad isn't even an ally.

"The Khalifas [Bahrain's royal family] got a pass because they are our friends. Saleh got a pass because counterterrorism efforts are king," Miller said. "But there is no reason why Syria should get a pass. Maybe before he was killing his people, but not now."

Syria presents Obama with biggest quandary

Nowhere is the balance between U.S. interests and values among the most delicate than in Syria, where to many the Obama administration's non-response so far to the bloodshed, when compared to Egypt and Libya, has been mind boggling.

Just 18 days after protests erupted in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Obama threw Hosni Mubarak, a key ally and lynchpin of U.S. security, under the bus by calling for an immediate transition in Egypt.

Going after Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was low-hanging fruit, given he was despised by most of the world. Still the U.S. helped assemble a NATO coalition in record time to impose a no-fly zone to protect civilians.

So why does Assad, whose support for Iran, meddling in Lebanon and Iraq, and support for terrorist networks like Hezbollah and Hamas has presented a threat to U.S. interests in the region for his 11-year rule merit a mere slap on the wrist?

As many as 1,000 people have been killed and about 10,000 others arrested since protests broke out there.

The United States' hopes that Assad would change, and the political space it has given him to do so since the crisis began, have been in part based on the fears, both in Washington and throughout the Arab world, that an extremist government would follow him, opening up sectarian tensions in the country.

Syria's nascent opposition has not yet produced any meaningful leaders, and tellingly, when the Atlantic's Jeffery Goldberg asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton whether she would be glad if Assad was going, she said, "It depends upon what replaces it."

In essence, the devil that you know is better than the devil that you don't know.

Until now, U.S. allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia have also been uneasy about consequences of striking against Assad. This week's skirmish on the Golan Heights, which has been quiet for more than 40 years, was a pointed warning to the United States that a destabilized Syria is an unpredictable one.

But the rose colored glasses with which the United States and Europe have viewed Assad are coming off. There's no indication that Assad is going to change course. Is cutting him loose worth the risk?

As one senior administration official put it, "There may be a time when there's really no better alternative, and when you take the chance that, with him no longer there, that things will go in a better direction."

There are growing signs of impatience with that approach. Officials of the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC told reporters that the "devil you know" argument is losing steam with Israelis.

Yet the United States is also mindful of the limits of its power. Obama knows he will look foolish, if he makes bold threats he can't deliver on.

The truth is the United States has little leverage over the Assad regime. Neither the engagement with which the Obama administration tried to woo Assad with nor the threat of sanctions has worked. And there won't be support from the Arab League and the United Nations for a military intervention similar to NATO-led Libya mission.

Simply put, there isn't much Obama can do to make a difference. But he can make a point by taking steps he has thus far been unable to, like recalling the U.S. ambassador, whom Obama appointed just last December for the first time since 2005, and placing sanctions on Assad personally and declaring the Syrian leader has lost legitimacy and needs to go.

But on Wednesday, the Obama administration announced new sanctions targeting Assad.

Read more on the sanctions

Even prior defenders of the Syrian regime like former U.S. ambassador Ted Kattouf have called for stepping up pressure on the regime.

Fears that Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been pushed aside

Leaders and people in the region and here at home are also looking to see whether Obama will offer new ideas to get the Israeli-Palestinian peace process moving again. Hopes are high, but expectations could not be any lower.

The resignation last week of Mideast envoy George Mitchell after more than two fruitless years seemed to be the last nail in the coffin, at least for now. With Egypt moving closer to Iran, Assad in a weakened state and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas forging a unity agreement with Hamas, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will meet with Obama this week, has made clear now is not the time for peace.

If that's the case, Obama is not eager to launch a new initiative only to fail.

But even the most eloquent speech that talks about democracy and reform without actionable steps to try to jump-start the peace process would effectively take the U.S. out of the game. You can't apply old rules, experts say, when the rules have changed.

The Arab street is now setting the pace of change.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said it would be "sad" if the peace process was pushed aside in the current turmoil in the region given Obama's commitment to the issue early in his tenure.

"It's very easy to find excuses not to move forward. It takes statesmanship and determination and conviction to move forward in spite of difficulty," he said.

The Palestinians may be becoming the latest to learn from Arab neighbors what peaceful non-resistance can do. With President Abbas threatening to seek recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations General Assembly in September and several countries already promising to support them, the region could be facing further upheaval.

"You can't say to Egyptians fighting for freedom, 'We are with you' and to Palestinians fighting for freedom, 'It is complicated," said Muasher. "That is not going to win you hearts and minds in the Middle East."

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