May 19th, 2011
02:54 PM ET

Fareed Zakaria on Obama's Mideast speech

Fareed Zakaria is live in Cairo with his impressions on President Obama's Middle East speech.

CNN: What did you make of this speech by the president today, Fareed? It was really a sweeping look at the region, though some countries such as Saudi Arabia were not mentioned.

Fareed Zakaria: It was his role as educator in chief that came out today. He provided a kind of world view, almost a historical interpretation of the causes and consequences of the Arab Spring. He began in the beginning with Tunisia and moved forward. And he tried to present a way in which he saw America's interests and values as squarely aligned with this Arab revolution.

He touched on the places that we don't like - the regimes we don't like that are having trouble dealing with people, Tehran and Damascus. He also talked about Bahrain and Yemen. But you are right, of course, he didn't talk about the 800-pound gorilla that is Saudi Arabia.

But he also then went on to talk about ways to consolidate these revolutions; he talked about the Arab-Israeli peace process. He was tougher on Syria than he's been. He was more explicit in his - in his support for two states, Israel and Palestine on 1967 borders, plus mutually agreeable land swaps, so very comprehensive.

I have a feeling though that while it will be well received in the region, there is an urgency here to questions about whether these revolutions are going to go awry or whether they're going to be consolidated.

I mean, here in Egypt there is great concern that having done this extraordinary revolution, they are still living under a military dictatorship that arrests its people, engages in military trials, torture, tear gas, and so I think they will be looking for that follow-through reactions that America's diplomats and ambassadors and perhaps the Secretary of State do. It was a good speech, but I think many Egyptians think right now they need a little more force than just a speech.

And Fareed, it was interesting, it almost seemed like the Obama doctrine is like let's deal with this on a case-by-case basis, country to country, and essentially putting the responsibility and onus on the people there saying that they had done more in six months than the terrorists had gotten done in decades. Do you think that the people there in the Arab world and the Middle East wanted to hear more from this President in terms of concrete ideas and solutions to move their democracies or their revolutions forward?

There are 80 million people here in Egypt and 80 million different opinions, but my sense is that they really do feel that this is about themselves. They don't think that United States has all the answers or all the solutions. I think that they are very much trying to consolidate their own revolution.

As you know, there are calls in Egypt for people to be - crowds to be out here behind me in Tahrir Square tomorrow, and then again on the 27th, to call for a kind of second revolution. I think they would probably like the United States to help them in the process of making sure that the army does actually devolve out to a genuinely Democratic system. I'm sure they would like the help economically, but more than anything else, I think they see this as their revolution and they don't want anyone to big-foot it. So they would not be looking to the United States to have some kind of silver bullet here.

Fareed, it's Wolf in Washington. I just want to get your reaction to what he said about President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. He was pretty tough; he said Assad can lead that transition to democracy if he will or get out of the way.

I think there are very few observers who believe he will actually lead a transition to democracy. But the president stopped short of saying that Bashar al-Assad must do what Mubarak in Egypt did or Gadhafi in Libya is supposed to do, namely leave. What did you think of the way the President finessed the words on Syria?

Wolf, that is the one part of the speech that I was a little puzzled by, because I think that we are clearly moving in the direction - when I say 'we,' I mean U.S. foreign policy - of calling for regime change in Syria. I'm not sure why we are phasing it out over several weeks, because as you say, there's almost no prospect that Assad will be part of a democratic transition, but the Syrian regime is a minority regime, an Alawite regime, that rules over a majority that really do not want to be ruled by this tiny minority that they, by the way, regard mostly at heretics. And so this regime knows it has no place to go; it's not going to compromise.

So, in that case, if we are taking the position that there needs to be a democratic transition, the logical consequence of that is to ask for Assad's ouster or, at the very least, to call on him to peacefully step down. And I understand concerns about instability, but we're going there anyway and it struck me that the president could have gone - he went one shade further than he's gone; I think he could have gone a couple shades more.

Was there anything else that you thought was thunderously missing besides his avoiding any direct reference to Saudi Arabia, stopping short of calling on Bashar al-Assad to step down; was there anything else you would have wanted to hear, Fareed?

No, I thought it was a comprehensive speech. I, by the way, understand why he didn't bring up Saudi Arabia. It is the most awkward case where our short-term interests are not compatible with our long-term values.

He highlighted the fact that there would be such occasions. He didn't point out that this was the most specific one. If there were instability in Saudi Arabia, you are looking at $250 a barrel oil, and that would potentially plunge the entire world into another recession.

So, I think there are good reasons to be somewhat cautious about change in Saudi Arabia. I think that he also gave a speech that I would be surprised if anyone in Israel would object to, because he was very clear that Israel's legitimate security interests have to be taken care of.

He was very clear on the fact that Hamas could not be negotiated with as long as it refused to recognize Israel and call for its destruction. I think that there are many of those kinds of key issues that Israelis were worried he would either ignore or half-state, he stated pretty fully.

So, I thought he was quite even-handed while calling for a Palestinian state on '67 borders, plus or minor land swaps. He also recognized Israel's legitimate security needs, so I'd be surprised if there is too much criticism out of Tel Aviv tonight.

Then at the same time, he also made clear that unless Hamas accepts Israel's right to exist, it accepts all the previous agreements, renounces violence, terrorism, then it's going to be difficult to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.


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