Obama's Mideast Speech Mindful Of U.S. Politics, Too

May 19, 2011

While much of President Obama's speech about U.S. foreign policy after the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa was aimed at an international audience, he also spoke for domestic consumption as well, of course.

And because the 2012 presidential election campaign is underway, how the speech might play out in that context is worth taking a few minutes to ponder.

To give his domestic listeners a framework they could readily relate to, Obama likened the street protests that have characterized the Arab Spring to evocative touchpoints in American history.

Sometimes, in the course of history, the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has built up for years. In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat. So it was in Tunisia, as that vendor's act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, then thousands. And in the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home – day after day, week after week, until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power.

It was striking that the president chose to highlight the same Boston patriots of the 1770s that have inspired the Tea Party movement that has been so opposed to Obama's agenda and the president himself.

It may have been just a coincidence. But it could have also been Obama signaling that not just conservative Republicans could lay claim to the legacy of those earliest Americans.

In any event, if the president could help Americans view the current protests in the Middle East and North Africa as sharing some of the same freedom spirit to be found in the American experience, it might make it easier to gain support for the type pf economic assistance to the region Obama's proposed in his speech.

He vowed $2 billion of U.S. foreign aid to Egypt and Tunisa, $1 billion of that in the form of Egypt debt forgiveness.

But in a political environment in which Americans are worried about jobs, deficits and debt, Obama made clear his administration's goal of U.S. aid would be to help those in the region help themselves through economic empowerment.

The goal must be a model in which protectionism gives way to openness; the reigns of commerce pass from the few to the many, and the economy generates jobs for the young. America's support for democracy will therefore be based on ensuring financial stability; promoting reform; and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy – starting with Tunisia and Egypt.

Also, the speech gave the president a chance to try and coherently outline for his critics, some of whom have been actual or potential GOP presidential candidates, why the U.S. was willing to bomb Libya but not Syria all the while treating Bahrain and Yemen with kid gloves.

Libya's Moammar Gadhafi was a lost cause, he was still holding out hope Syria's President Bashear Assad might change and Bahrain and Yemen are allies, the president said.

The much-anticipated speech also afforded the president the opportunity to reiterate U.S.' "unshakeable" if not blind support for Israel.

While support for Israel has been a given for both Democratic and Republican administrations, the strength of Obama's commitment to Israel has been questioned going back to the 2008 presidential campaign. It was a concern for the Obama campaign during the Florida Democratic primary, for instance, because of the significant number of Jewish voters there.

With Florida perhaps even more important to Obama's 2012 fortunes as four years ago, Obama can 't afford to leave doubts as to his support for Israel though he also sought to convey the need for Israelis to compromise if they are ever to achieve a durable peace with Palestinians:

For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.

As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums. But precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth: the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.

Of course, any foreign-policy speech by a president as a general-election campaign starts to gather momentum helps to underscore the power of incumbency and of a president's experience and stature on the world stage.

Only a U.S. president can draw the kind of attention for a major foreign policy address that Obama did Thursday.

It's an advantage that Obama clearly will exploit to his advantage throughout the campaign season, even more so since almost all of the possible GOP presidential nominees who have arisen so far have little to no foreign policy experience.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.