Obama Middle East Speech: Goodbye nation-building, hello nation-facilitating.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 19 2011 4:58 PM

Goodbye Nation-Building, Hello Nation-Facilitating

The vision and the frustration behind Obama's Middle East speech.

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The president's message was understandably upbeat. He was trying to argue that this is a time of opportunity—and that might still prove to be true. But let's not ignore reality. Right now, the Middle East is a total mess. The Egyptian revolution is stuck in midair; the Libyan mission has yet to be successful; Syria is soaked in blood; Palestinians are being killed as they try to force their way across the Israeli border; Lebanon is barely independent; Bahrain is trembling; Iran is still advancing its military nuclear program; and the list goes on.

It's fine for the president to argue that the timely achievement of killing Osama Bin Laden will be a watershed event, leading to a freer, more prosperous, and more moderate Middle East. It is fine for him to hope, as long as such hope isn't mistakenly or deliberately confused with reality.

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Obama's Middle East speech wasn't at all revolutionary; it didn't present any ideas we haven't heard before; it didn't come up with strategy that will one day be called "grand." But that doesn't mean the speech wasn't good or worthy. "[W]e must proceed with a sense of humility," Obama said, and with such proper humility he made a leap of both faith and some courage. In fact, this leap was felt more concretely earlier this week, when the Obama administration slapped Syrian President Bashir Assad with more meaningful sanctions than those of previous cycles, demanding that he "lead a political transition or leave." This looks like the crossing of a political Rubicon.

Consider this: Obama will have two distinguished guests in the White House this week, King Abdullah of Jordan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Both countries have a border with Syria. Both leaders loathe Assad and condemn his behavior, but both also dread the possible consequences for Syria and its neighbors if and when Assad leaves the scene. Both leaders came to Washington to hear that Obama had already made up his mind: He is going to push the butcher of Damascus around as much as he possibly can, no matter how bad a short-term impact this might have on Syria's neighbors. He is going to support the restive Syrians, even though he has no way of knowing what the outcome of regime change in Damascus might be.

Obama made a commitment by tightening the noose around Assad, and he sealed this commitment in today's speech. He seems to have made his peace with the policy Washington will pursue: no more looking the other way, no more nuance, no more exceptions. "The status quo is unsustainable." From now on, the United States will support the restive publics throughout the Middle East. From now on, fear of chaos and instability is being pushed aside. Quoting President George W. Bush's second inaugural address would have been the masterstroke—it didn't happen this time, but there may be another opportunity down the road. Didn't Bush say it all: "[I]t is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

Shmuel Rosner is a contributing opinion writer for the International New York Times, and political editor for the Jewish Journal

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