There were some fine sentences in President Obama’s speech, but two of his main points were wrong.
The first thing he did was take credit for the Arab Spring, saying he had supported it all along. This is simply not true. The by-word early in his administration was “engagement,” with a caustic rejection of the Bush “Freedom Agenda.” Bush’s tougher policies toward Iran and Syria were to be replaced by outreach, discussion, diplomacy — far more civilized. And that engagement was with the rulers, not the ruled; Obama’s was a world of states, and you engaged with the people ruling them.
This policy is what led him to react so slowly and unenthusiastically when the people of Iran rose up after the stolen elections of June 2009. It is what led to silence and delay when there were uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Even today, with 1,000 peaceful protesters murdered in the streets of Syria, Obama cannot abandon engagement with Bashar al-Assad. Instead of saying Assad must go, in this speech Obama announced yet another round of outreach: “The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.” For President Obama to suggest that Assad might lead a transition to democracy is a gruesome joke to play on the people struggling for freedom in the streets of Syria.
It is traditional now for Obama to insult the Bush administration, and this time he referred at the start to how he had had to “shift our foreign policy” after a decade of war. In fact, the shift he had to perform today was from indifference to democracy in the Arab world to the Bush policy of supporting it.
A second key section dealt with the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. It may well be that the administration knows that nothing will happen in the coming year, as Palestinians turn toward internal politics and next year’s elections, and seek to avoid negotiations. The president suggested as much when he said of the new Fatah-Hamas unity agreement, “How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? In the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.” That is a good challenge, which they will fail to meet. If European or Arab leaders complain about the lack of progress, U.S. officials can refer back to that passage and say, “What can we do? We can’t ask the Israelis to negotiate with Hamas.”
But the president unfortunately went beyond that good question and suggested an illogical way forward. His idea was to put off Jerusalem and refugees, two impossible issues, and instead negotiate borders and security. But in fact, the border issues in the farther northern and southern areas are often simple, and most of the time the Israeli security fence is actually on or very near the 1949 armistice line, often mistakenly called “the 1967 border.” The far harder matter is the Jerusalem area, and if Jerusalem is not solved, borders cannot be solved. It won’t work. Nor will it work to solve security issues in isolation from others, such as whether Palestinians really accept the permanent existence of the Jewish state at all. Hamas’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, said last week he had “great hope of bringing to an end the Zionist project in Palestine,” and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said, “We will never give up the right of return,” by which he means flooding Israel with millions of Palestinian “refugees.” In 2004 President Bush told Prime Minister Sharon that “an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.” That Bush position, contained in a letter to Prime Minister Sharon, was then endorsed by both houses of Congress. President Obama’s failure to restate it will rightly strike Israelis as a dangerous shift in position, and one can only hope that he clarifies the matter when he addresses AIPAC on Sunday.