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What Obama Should Say Tomorrow

Twilight on the corniche in Beirut in February

The chatter in the news and on Twitter today is about President Obama’s big speech on the Middle East at the State Department tomorrow. What will he say? There is no question this is a serious opportunity to get the Arab Spring back on track. It has veered off course in recent weeks. President Assad in Syria has succeeded in his vicious crackdown on protests. In Bahrain, protestors and their supporters in newspapers and hospitals are being sentenced to long prison terms for crimes against the government. Egypt is facing worsening economic troubles and violent religious tension. And on Sunday Israel watched a terrifying spectacle unfold: unarmed Palestinians exercising their right of return all on their own, climbing border fences, tossing rocks, waving flags, and falling to the IDF’s bullets.

Obama now faces an opportunity to seize the initiative in the Arab Spring and the Israel/Palestine conflict together (he meets with Netanyahu on Friday). Here is what he should say:

1. Sorry. To the Bahrainis and Syrians especially, Obama needs to apologize. Thanks to Shadi Hamid at Brookings for voicing this argument. The Obama administration turned a blind eye to atrocities committed by the Bahraini monarchy. Over the past several weeks, the Sunni government has been bulldozing Shia mosques, sometimes at night so that people wake up to giant piles of rubble. The government also targeted doctors and journalists, the vast majority of them Shias, for supporting the protests. The US has stayed silent. Of course, this silence has much to do with the fact that the US fifth fleet is stationed in Bahrain. It also has much to do with our Saudi allies. Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were immediately worried that the mainly Shia-driven protests in Bahrain would find support across the gulf in Iran. After Washington abandoned Hosni Mubarak to his fate, Obama lost some credibility in the eyes of the Saudis. The House of Saud thought he would do the same to them if a democratic movement took hold there. Staying silent on Bahrain, therefore, made strategic sense to Team Obama.

Obama also owes an apology to the Syrians. Many of the protestors who took to the streets probably hoped that the US would respond the way it did in Egypt and in Libya — where we condemned the violence and the leadership, and supported armed intervention on behalf of the reform movement (in Libya). They were wrong. It was never an option that the US would support intervention in Syria. Assad, brutal as he is, is preferable to the instability that Washington and Jerusalem believe might come if he fell. Sure, the US condemned the crackdown, funded Syrian opposition groups, and imposed sanctions on the top leadership in Damascus (until today, that didn’t include President Assad). But Washington said and did little else. Many people say this is because we have no leverage over Syria. Bullshit, says Michael Young, editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star. “The reality is if anyone has leverage over Syria, it is the United States.” I’m not sure I agree — Iran probably has a bit more credibility in Damascus — but the fact remains that Bashar al-Assad, like his father, is a murderer, his inner circle greedy and corrupt, and the people of Syria deserve more. I met many of them in February, and was surprised and overwhelmed by the pro-America sentiment they expressed. I don’t mean to suggest this is Washington’s fault, just that someone should have done something. If the UN Human Rights Council is unable act against state-supported violence like this, what is it for?

An apology would also go a long way toward remedying Washington’s longtime support for Arab autocracies. Read this post from Steve Cook at my old employer, the CFR. Cook writes Obama must somehow acknowledge “Washington’s past support for the dictators of the region. This would be an important symbolic gesture that could help ameliorate the mistrust with which many in the region view the United States.” Stability in the Middle East is not something that can be created by supporting dictators like Mubarak or violent regimes like the Bahraini monarchy. It is a long-term project. Our best chance at addressing the roots of instability in the Middle East and Islamic terrorism is by supporting the peoples’ rights to political and social liberty. Also — how can we chastise Assad for human rights abuses but stay silent about Bahrain? All dictators deserve the same treatment.

Lastly, an apology should include some reasoning on why Obama and his Administration made the decisions they did. Everyone knows that strategic concerns and those of your close allies guide policy, but will Obama come out and say this? Will he discuss why it took until yesterday to sanction Assad? Will he say that he and his allies were worried about losing a friendly government in Bahrain and a base for the fifth fleet, and concerned about the spreading of Iranian Shia influence, and therefore stayed silent? A movement as widespread and revolutionary as 2011′s Arab Spring deserves an announced strategy, even if that strategy depends on each individual situation.

2. Obama should announce financial support for new Middle East democracies. This is something he is likely to do. Today Obama announced about $1 billion in economic activity with Jordan, and will also send them 600,000 metric tons of wheat. According to the Wall Street Journal, Egypt has spent almost $3.5 billion of its foreign exchange reserves as tourism, foreign investment, and remittances from abroad have dried up since the revolution. Congress, in trying to find ways to cut spending, might question further aid to Egypt (we already give them about $1.3 billion each year). But money is what Egypt needs. In a scenario that has played out many times in the history of the Middle East, a deteriorating economy can create a more conservative, more Islamist, more repressive, more anti-West government. Financial assistance in smart and long-term packages will help democratic movements in the Middle East keep the momentum.

3. Obama should address the Israel-Palestinian peace process. It has failed. George Mitchell resigned this week after struggling along in a process without any new ideas and where neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians wanted to meet with him. Sunday was not a good day for Israel — Nakba Day rallies spilled over into Israel from Syria and Lebanon, and a dozen people were killed. In Syria, where numerous checkpoints and fences block the road to the Golan Heights, government forces likely stood aside to let them pass. It was a convenient and familiar strategy for Assad: create tension with Israel to prove that his hand is on the faucet, that the US and Israel need him to maintain stability along their mutual border. But in Lebanon, everything was peaceful until the IDF started shooting.

In September, the Palestinians are expected to ask the UN for recognition of their state. The US and Israel don’t want this to happen — the US would prefer not to have to make a choice between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and the Israelis don’t want to deal with Palestinian negotiators waving an endorsement from the UN. If Obama is smart, he will lay out the beginnings of a plan tomorrow and with Netanyahu on Friday. This plan will involve the creation of Palestine sometime soon and the resolution of all the problems that come with that bombshell, most importantly the issue of refugees, their children, and their grandchildren.

It’s easy to imagine the Palestinian issue as a more and more dangerous powder keg. The Palestinians have so far been conspicuously absent from the Arab democratic movements sweeping the rest of the Middle East. Israel is rightly stressed about them protesting peacefully in large numbers — if something were to go wrong, the IDF has a history of dealing with these problems very poorly (see Gaza flotilla). If the IDF starts shooting, Assad and Ahmadinejad will jump into action. They will yell that Israel (and the US) do not support Arabs’ right to democracy, self-rule, and social liberties. Iran has been quietly building up Hezbollah’s arsenal to the point where it might be able to provoke and sustain another war with Israel. And that is exactly what the Middle East does not need at this point.

A lot hinges on the Israel-Palestine peace process. Obama would be smart to lay down a plan over the next few days.

Tune in tomorrow for the speech, and see also a post-speech interview with Foreign Policy‘s Marc Lynch, NPR’s Andy Carvin, and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.