Foreign Policy Blogs

A New Chapter for America in the Middle East

President Obama’s speech on Thursday was designed to introduce a symbolic redefinition of American policy in the Middle East. Assuring his international audience that an ever-changing world demands continued leadership, his words ushered in a new chapter of American diplomacy.

The president endorsed US military action aimed at deposing Libya’s Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s brutal regime, in no uncertain terms. He then defended America’s less muscular posture in response to concentrated crackdowns in Bahrain and Yemen. While President Obama avoided a necessary discussion of the administration’s dubious partnership with Saudi Arabia, he deployed tougher language against violent repression in Syria. Most notably, for the first time in his presidency, he called for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question on the basis of the 1967 borders. All were that repression will fail and that the tyrants will fall in the president’s sweeping analysis of the causes and consequences of the Arab Spring.

Americans were told of their president’s overarching vision for US involvement in the region. However, efforts to construct a cohesive storyline about his administration’s efforts in the region will remain difficult. Bin Laden may be dead, but the Palestinian peace process has ground to a halt and the Arab world’s conflagration will demand a case-by-case decision making process that balances short-term interests in the scope of a long-term narrative. As the president noted, “it will be years before this story reaches its end.”

However, the message for Iraqis is manifest – America’s attention to their political arc has come to a close.  By dialing down the US military presence, and decapitating al-Qaeda, the political demands that defined George W. Bush’s presidency are satisfied. The United States has turned the page, and will welcome the opportunity to usher in a more positive era for the Middle East.

While he hailed the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy in Baghdad, Mr. Obama revealed the real lesson of our Mesopotamian tragedy, stating “we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to try to impose regime change by force, no matter how well intentioned it may be.” The events of the past six months have demonstrated that “that strategies of repression and strategies of diversion will not work anymore.” America did not put people in the streets in Cairo and Tunis and our support for reform and transitions to liberal democracy cannot be exported at gun-point.

As ever, Obama’s speech was grounded in the soaring rhetoric of rights, dignity and international norms that define America’s commitment to democracy, and the president’s global vision. But as this new narrative takes shape, America’s destiny in the Middle East will be determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories we choose believe in. Given these sentiments, one must pause to think what Saddam’s fate might have been, had he lived to witness the dawn of the Arab Spring.

As we re-imagine America’s role in the Middle East after a decade of war and bloodshed, it is impossible to overlook moments of ambition, idealism, and tragedy that defined this chapter in our shared storyline with the Arab world. Fortunately, our new beginning looks more hopeful.



Reid Smith

Reid Smith has worked as a research associate specializing on U.S. policy in the Middle East and as a political speechwriter. He is currently a doctoral student and graduate associate with the University of Delaware's Department of Political Science and International Relations. He blogs and writes for The American Spectator.