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Tonight, US President Barack Obama will make his first major speech touching on the situation in the Middle East since the uprisings began in late 2010. The speech is intended to bring some clarity to US policy in the region in reaction to the tumultuous and ongoing changes it is facing, and counter criticism that the Obama administration has responded to these events in an haphazard and confusing way. It is meant to be, some have speculated (no doubt informed by leaks from the White House), a "reset" of relations between America and the Arab world.
Sounds familiar? In 2009 Mr. Obama came to Cairo and delivered a much-heralded speech -- albeit as the guest of the dictator Egyptians recently deposed -- and promised all at once greater humility, support for democracy, engagement with civil society, and progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a "reset," this was superficially successful: The charismatic young African-American president immediately struck a more likeable image than his predecessor.
But within a year the vagaries of the American political system and strategic reality had caught up with Mr Obama's message of hope and change. He proved unable or unwilling to deliver the much-needed correction of approach to the Israeli-Palestinian question and was humiliatingly forced to walk back his promise to stop the advance of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Worse than this, he barely even tried. When the US envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, George Mitchell, resigned last week the only question was why he had left so late.
While the Cairo speech delivered some worthwhile programs on science, entrepreneurship and women's rights, it amounted to little else of substance and was notably devoid of any big ideas. It got the situation in the Arab world wrong by focusing on incremental reform when the people of the region were clamoring (and achieving) definitive rupture. Much like Obama has disappointed many at home by promising change and then, most of the time, failing to really fight for it, in the Middle East the initial enthusiasm about his election has dampened, and US policy in the region has changed little in substance from the late Bush administration.
To be sure, Obama's speech will include an homage to the Tunisians and Egyptians and Libyans and Syrians and others who rose up or are still rising up against their dictators. It will include a pious call for a return to negotiations in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It will promise American support for democracy in the region. But I doubt it will include a frank apology for having been part of the problem of the Arab world's enduring autocracy.
It will not acknowledge that America's Middle Eastern empire, with its ensuing focus on stability (with the occasional dash of creative destruction), is one important reason for regional dysfunction. The US cannot and should not be expected to intervene in every one of the region's uprisings, but Obama will not pledge to at least do no evil. He will not announce plans for the withdrawal of the US Navy Fifth Fleet from Bahrain, whose al-Khalifa dynasty now make for an embarrassing ally. Instead, he will probably choose to concentrate on Syria, a more convenient example of bloody repression. He will not recognize that America's closest Arab ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, now seeks to put out the flame of revolution he will no doubt praise.
Obama will certainly not acknowledge that, in the absence of any viable peace process, the best course would be to at least respect international law and the legitimacy of the principle of national self-determination. But that would mean backing the Palestinian Authority's efforts at the United Nations to gain recognition of its right to sovereignty. It might also mean beginning to ask what, if the two-state solution is unattainable, the alternative might be.
But most of all, Obama will not grasp that the Middle East is changing faster than the international community can cope with -- which is one of the reasons he now feels he must make this speech. As the dominant power in the region, the United States will make violence only more likely by resisting this change. Some recent trends -- including the face-off between demonstrators and police at the Israeli embassy in Cairo a few days ago -- are the result of this shift away from the American template for the region in place for several decades.
It might be said, somewhat fairly, that it is unreasonable to expect any of the above from an American president and the political system he stems from. The influence of various lobbies, a foreign policy establishment still wedded to the idea that the Middle East is America's playground, and the slow-moving military bureaucracy are certainly massive impediments. Yet even the inclusion of only one of the above might have signaled a real reset. I hope I'm wrong, but I'll doubt we'll see that.