Obama’s Wilsonian call will invite skepticism
May 19th, 2011
04:03 PM ET

Obama’s Wilsonian call will invite skepticism

Editor's NoteRobert Danin is the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Check out CFR.org's expert roundup of reactions to President Obama's speech.

By Robert Danin, CFR.org

In America’s debate over how to react to the six-month long Arab uprisings –whether to pursue pure national interests or advance American ideals –President Obama today unambiguously embraced the ideals of self-determination for the peoples of the Middle East.

The bold Wilsonian approach towards the region may inspire some, especially in Syria, where the regime remarkably allowed the President’s speech to be aired. Iranians too, who had felt neglected, may take new inspiration from the President’s corrective to the people of Iran by noting the uprising there in June 2009. The region’s Kurds may wonder whether the President’s repeated invocation of self-determination applies to them.

But President’s remarks will also fuel the charges of inconsistency that his Administration has tried to bat down throughout this year.

Saudi Arabia, for example, was conspicuously absent from mention in the President’s speech. Yet neighboring Bahrain, while noted as a long-standing partner, was strongly urged to engage in dialogue with jailed oppositionists.

But what Middle Easterners are most likely to focus on is the gap between rhetoric and action. To be sure, the President’s reaffirmation of his 2009 Cairo speech and his identification of principles provided economic deliverables, including $1 billion in Egyptian debt forgiveness and a $2 billion private investment facility.

But the President’s detailed articulation of the terms for an Israeli Palestinian settlement lacks a clear way forward. Instead, he called for the U.S., the Quartet, and the Arabs states “to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.”

That said, the President broke significant new ground in outlining the territorial basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiation to resolve most, but not all, of their outstanding claims. He nodded to the Palestinians on territory and towards the Israelis on security and a bit on refugees, implying no right of return for the Palestinians by calling for two states for two peoples– Israel as a Jewish state and Palestine as a Palestinian state.

More significantly, the U.S. for the first time articulated the territorial basis for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians: the pre-1967 Six Day War line as the borders between Israel and Palestine.

Until now, the U.S. had called this the Palestinians’ goal. To balance this, the President nodded to Israeli West Bank security concerns, saying Palestine will have to be non-militarized, with a phased Israeli withdrawal and security arrangements requiring a Palestinian demonstration of performance.

Yet this territory for the Palestinians and security for the Israelis trade off will probably not be seen as balanced by Israel. Despite Obama’s assurances that Israel’s “basic security concerns” will be met, his comments called for a “full” West Bank withdrawal, indicating no permanent Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley. Israelis will be pleased, however, with the president’s bold challenge to the Palestinians to provide a “credible answer” to the “profound and legitimate” Israeli question of how one negotiates with a partner that is unwilling to recognize your right to exist.

President Obama was wise to refrain from providing an outline explicit terms on Jerusalem and refugees - Israel would no doubt be compelled to reject the a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, and Palestinians would denounce any explicit rejection of their “right of return.” Yet he will no doubt be criticized for not going far enough and providing the parties an end-of-conflict formula.

President Obama’s attempt to provide an American response to the Middle East’s uprisings was clearly bold and ambitious. Yet the president’s attempt to provide a region-wide unified theory will ultimately prove difficult to square with what has clearly been a case by case approach.

How his detailed outline of terms for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement will break the current diplomatic stalemate remains to be seen.

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Topics: Middle East • President Obama

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. serenitylost

    I support Israel to dwell in the land that God's covenant established for them and was their
    historic homeland for over 1000 years. It was prophesied they would return to
    that land, "a nation created in one day." This is exactly what happened with the United
    Nations mandate that created the modern state of Israel.

    Mr. Obama is speaking with a forked tongue. Saying the United States is friends with Israel
    and yet he supports the division of their homeland, dividing the city of Jerusalem,
    returning to the 67 borders would leave Israel with a indefensible state. It's already
    been attacked on at least 3 occasions by all its surrounding neighbors.

    Imagine Mr. Obama, if a foreign leader made a speech to the
    world proclaiming they support that the United States be willing to give up the
    southwestern states to Mexico.

    I pray for peace for Jerusalem.

    May 19, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      "President Obama today unambiguously embraced the ideals of self-determination for the peoples of the Middle East". It is irrelevant which ethnic and religious groups they belong and where they live. Obama is right, that he sides with the people rather than their leaders. Politicians are servants of the country and they come and go, while people are electors and they will always stay.

      May 19, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  2. Newsforever

    POTUS should NEVER make a statement wherby Israel would give land back to people who were defeated in the 19967 war. POTUS needs to read the Bible's Old Testament – God gave Abraham and his descendants the land of Isreal and its will remain Israels' until Jeus Christ returns. USA MUST reamin supportive of Israel. Yahweh is great!

    May 19, 2011 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  3. MIkeinLR

    Obama shows an inability to understand the history and dynamics of the middle east. The arabs will never rest until Israel is wiped off the map. If that means murdering all 6 million jews in Israel they will justify it. God gave Israel the coordinates of the land he gave them to occupy as Israel. That original grant has been chopped up and is occupied by arabs today.

    How can Obama call for the establishment of a country's borders when he refuses to protect his own borders.

    May 19, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  4. JR

    God! God! God! That's the problem in this entire argument, people are still putting into factor an imaginary guy in the sky. First of, the Democratic-Republic of the United States of America is Secular. It's founding was created with no intent of supporting foreign policy with the influence of religion. In fat, one of strongest allies in the south-ease Pacific is Indonesia, what religion are they? Muslim! Our strongest allies in Latin America and Europe are Christian, our strongest allies in the Far East are neither, so enough with all this god and Abraham talk.

    Second off, this is in no way a parallel argument between Palestine/Israel and US.Mexico. They are two completely different regions, and I would argue that the relationship between the US and Mexico is friendly and in the near future will become even more friendly. The consequences for which create the state of Israel and sparked wars are different from the consequences for which the Republic of Mexico and Guadalupe Treaty (note the word treaty) were created. Completely different cultures and histories that are intertwined.

    Thirdly, the US has been a victim of having Israeli spies in the United States. We've had Israel, which receives billions in aid, not be receptive to our presidents and our own interests. What kind of ally is that? Our strongest ally in the region is Egypt, this is 2011 not the 20th Century. Get with it folks. We are not going to throw a majority of the world under the bus and convert them back into our enemies, only to appease a couple of rouge states. It's time for both Palestine and Israel to get it together, BOTH, the US has already lost enough blood and money in that region.

    May 19, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      You may not know it, JR, but Israel is a SOVEREIGN STATE and therefore is receptive for its own interests first. Second, while the Mexicans were willing to make peace with the US the Arabs DID NOT and DO NOT want to make peace with Israel. It's pretty ridiculous to blame Israel for Arab hatred and racism. Third, Egypt is NOT an ally of the US, period... but it receives almost as much of US aid as Israel does. Do you REALLY believe that Egypt is more "receptive to our presidents and our own interests" than Israel is? Fourth, Israel is not the only and definitely not the worst nation that collected intelligence information in the US. Other spies (from Russia, China and many other states) caused much more damage to the US than J. Pollard did leaving aside Arab terrorists who murdered thousands of American citizens. Fifth, if you're complaining about Israel as an ally of the US what should Israel say about the US considering that the US supplies THREE TIMES more weapons to Arab countries than it supplies to Israel? Finally, fifth, if you believe that by betraying Israel the US will become "friends with the majority of the world" you're deeply mistaken. Such a move will, probably, encourage the Arabs and Iranians to try and destroy Israel (again) forcing Israelis to fight back using all means necessary to defend their state and their citizens. Unfortunately, Israel does not have many options to do it as it does not have strategic bombers, aircraft carriers and millions of troops. This means that in case the Arabs and/or Iranians will initiate a large scale war Israel will have no other option but to turn its enemies into a radioactive desert and sending the world economy into a crisis of epic proportions. WHO will be blamed for "throwing the world under the bus" if it happens, in your opinion?

      May 19, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Reply
      • JR

        "The Arabs", I could already tell that you're an Israeli sympathizer, zionist, or just dumb. You can not clump together Arab people, Lebanese people, Syrians, Saudis, Egyptians, Iraqis, Jordanians, etc...they all have different cultures, histories, politics. Your assumption is very naive, discriminatory and dangerous. Especially to assume that they all want to see Israel be destroyed and for the world to never see peace, get off the Kool-Aid. Arabs are without a doubt, some of them, racist and extremists but that does not exclude Israelis. The Israeli president himself prides himself in being a strong nationalist so all of these discussions and rhetoric with Obama does not surprise me. And you want further proof of racism? Search: "South Tel Aviv Is On Fire" on YouTube.

        As for other nations having had bigger spy rings, sure but the only large one that was actually busted was with our own ally, Israel. And last time I checked, we weren't shaking hands with Communist China or the Russians, we expect that from them not from allies like Israel.

        Egypt IS an ally, I know that's hard for you to swallow but they were even before the creation of Israel, not to mention other Arab states like Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates. And of course those nations are going to receive triple the aid in weapons, they are more than one nation, but Israel is one tiny state that isn't even the size of Ohio and yet it receives massive aid, guaranteed protection from every president in the event that another nation strikes Israel, and there is no reception back on this issue? Seems strange for an ally, even a sovereign one.

        I'm not talking about betrayal, and neither is our president, read! We are not going to continue to align ourselves with people who do not want compromise and work things out. In the real world, Israel is not the United States only ally, nor its strongest, nor the only one in the region. Peace among all nations, and having more than one ally in the region is in the vital interest of the US, to have extremists use this stupid, childish conflict as a recruiting tool has and will continue to hurt millions of American lives. No more.

        As far as who will I blame for a nuclear disaster? Well Israel of course, or whoever launches the first nuke. If you are already thinking about retaliation, war, and bombings then there is a problem. It's called mutual-deterrence, no nation is stupid enough to launch a nuke, that will spark a global nuclear war and each side will end up dead. But nice try in attempting to scare me.

        May 20, 2011 at 10:16 pm |
  5. Onesmallvoice

    If Barack Obama's so much for self determination,then why is the U.S. and it's worthless allies butting into Libya's civil war and sending money under the table to the Syrian "rebels"? That reeks of an attempt to take over rather than liberate!

    May 19, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  6. T klimchuk

    God how much longer will you americans have to put up with this fool.We here in Canada had one of these fools nick name Iggy leader of the Liberal party who came fro the same sperm bank as Obama did except the citzens refused to elect him

    May 22, 2011 at 5:05 am | Reply

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