Video | President Obama Speaks on Middle East & North Africa Policy

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THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you very much. Thank you. Please, have a seat. Thank you very much. I want to begin by thanking Hillary Clinton, who has traveled so much these last six months that she is approaching a new landmark — one million frequent flyer miles. (Laughter.) I count on Hillary every single day, and I believe that she will go down as one of the finest Secretaries of State in our nation’s history.

The State Department is a fitting venue to mark a new chapter in American diplomacy. For six months, we have witnessed an extraordinary change taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. Square by square, town by town, country by country, the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights. Two leaders have stepped aside. More may follow. And though these countries may be a great distance from our shores, we know that our own future is bound to this region by the forces of economics and security, by history and by faith.

Today, I want to talk about this change — the forces that are driving it and how we can respond in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security.

Now, already, we’ve done much to shift our foreign policy following a decade defined by two costly conflicts. After years of war in Iraq, we’ve removed 100,000 American troops and ended our combat mission there. In Afghanistan, we’ve broken the Taliban’s momentum, and this July we will begin to bring our troops home and continue a transition to Afghan lead. And after years of war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, we have dealt al Qaeda a huge blow by killing its leader, Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden was no martyr. He was a mass murderer who offered a message of hate –- an insistence that Muslims had to take up arms against the West, and that violence against men, women and children was the only path to change. He rejected democracy and individual rights for Muslims in favor of violent extremism; his agenda focused on what he could destroy -– not what he could build.

Bin Laden and his murderous vision won some adherents. But even before his death, al Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life. By the time we found bin Laden, al Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands.

That story of self-determination began six months ago in Tunisia. On December 17th, a young vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi was devastated when a police officer confiscated his cart. This was not unique. It’s the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world -– the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity. Only this time, something different happened. After local officials refused to hear his complaints, this young man, who had never been particularly active in politics, went to the headquarters of the provincial government, doused himself in fuel, and lit himself on fire.

There are times in the course of history when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has been building 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.

The story of this revolution, and the ones that followed, should not have come as a surprise. The nations of the Middle East and North Africa won their independence long ago, but in too many places their people did not. In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of a few. In too many countries, a citizen like that young vendor had nowhere to turn -– no honest judiciary to hear his case; no independent media to give him voice; no credible political party to represent his views; no free and fair election where he could choose his leader.

And this lack of self-determination –- the chance to make your life what you will –- has applied to the region’s economy as well. Yes, some nations are blessed with wealth in oil and gas, and that has led to pockets of prosperity. But in a global economy based on knowledge, based on innovation, no development strategy can be based solely upon what comes out of the ground. Nor can people reach their potential when you cannot start a business without paying a bribe.

In the face of these challenges, too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere. The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half-century after the end of colonialism. Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression. Divisions of tribe, ethnicity and religious sect were manipulated as a means of holding on to power, or taking it away from somebody else.

But the events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and strategies of diversion will not work anymore. Satellite television and the Internet provide a window into the wider world -– a world of astonishing progress in places like India and Indonesia and Brazil. Cell phones and social networks allow young people to connect and organize like never before. And so a new generation has emerged. And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied.

In Cairo, we heard the voice of the young mother who said, “It’s like I can finally breathe fresh air for the first time.”

In Sanaa, we heard the students who chanted, “The night must come to an end.”

In Benghazi, we heard the engineer who said, “Our words are free now. It’s a feeling you can’t explain.”

In Damascus, we heard the young man who said, “After the first yelling, the first shout, you feel dignity.”

Those shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region. And through the moral force of nonviolence, the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades.

Of course, change of this magnitude does not come easily. In our day and age -– a time of 24-hour news cycles and constant communication –- people expect the transformation of the region to be resolved in a matter of weeks. But it will be years before this story reaches its end. Along the way, there will be good days and there will bad days. In some places, change will be swift; in others, gradual. And as we’ve already seen, calls for change may give way, in some cases, to fierce contests for power.

The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds. For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.

We will continue to do these things, with the firm belief that America’s interests are not hostile to people’s hopes; they’re essential to them. We believe that no one benefits from a nuclear arms race in the region, or al Qaeda’s brutal attacks. We believe people everywhere would see their economies crippled by a cut-off in energy supplies. As we did in the Gulf War, we will not tolerate aggression across borders, and we will keep our commitments to friends and partners.

Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind. Moreover, failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense. Given that this mistrust runs both ways –- as Americans have been seared by hostage-taking and violent rhetoric and terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of our citizens -– a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world.

And that’s why, two years ago in Cairo, I began to broaden our engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. I believed then -– and I believe now -– that we have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self-determination of individuals. The status quo is not sustainable. Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder.

So we face a historic opportunity. We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator. There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity. Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise. But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.

Of course, as we do, we must proceed with a sense of humility. It’s not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo -– it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and it’s the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome.

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3 Responses to Video | President Obama Speaks on Middle East & North Africa Policy

  1. Ametia says:

    Obama and Netanyahu, Distrustful Allies, to MeetBy HELENE COOPER
    Published: May 19, 2011

    WASHINGTON — As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel heads to the White House on Friday for the seventh meeting since President Obama took office, the two men are facing a turning point in a relationship that has never been warm.

    By all accounts, they do not trust each other. President Obama has told aides and allies that he does not believe that Mr. Netanyahu will ever be willing to make the kind of big concessions that will lead to a peace deal.

    For his part, Mr. Netanyahu has complained that Mr. Obama has pushed Israel too far — a point driven home during a furious phone call with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday morning, just hours before Mr. Obama’s speech, during which the prime minister reacted angrily to the president’s plan to endorse Israel’s pre-1967 borders for a future Palestinian state.

    Mr. Obama did not back down. But the last-minute furor highlights the discord as they head into what one Israeli official described as a “train wreck” coming their way: a United Nations General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood in September.

  2. Ametia says:

    Posted at 01:42 PM ET, 05/19/2011
    The steel in Obama’s Mideast speech
    By Jackson Diehl

    President Obama’s Middle East speech contained a surprising amount of specificity — and in that, some real steel. Not just U.S. adversaries, such as Syria and Iran, but friends, such as Bahrain and Israel, were singled out for presidential pointers that will leave their leaders smarting.

    Take Bahrain, a Persian Gulf emirate and close U.S. ally that hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Its ruling al-Khalifa family, which is Sunni Muslim, has been staging a harsh crackdown on the Shiite majority, which was prominent in recent mass demonstrations seeking greater freedom. Obama began by calling Bahrain “a longstanding partner” and said the United States would defend its security. He acknowledged that nearby Iran had tried to exploit its unrest.

    But then Obama bluntly condemned the repression. He said “the only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and it can’t have a dialogue when part of the opposition are in jail.” Later the president declared that “Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.” The regime has responded angrily to accusations by human rights groups of deliberate mosque demolitions; now it will have to answer Obama.

    Israelis and Palestinians each will have their reasons to be unsettled by the president’s words. Obama did not lay out a specific U.S. plan for Middle East peace, limiting himself to repeating principles that his administration and past administrations have endorsed before — like the notion that a territorial settlement between Israel and a Palestinian state must be based on Israel’s 1967 borders.

    But Obama acidly dismissed the plan by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to seek recognition of Palestinian statehood by the United Nations General Assembly this September, declaring that “symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations will not create an independent state.” He also said “Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer” to the question of how Israel can be expected to negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, which refuses to accept Israel’s existence.

    Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will be pleased by those words — but probably discomforted by Obama’s insistence that peace negotiations can no longer be delayed and that Israel “must act boldly.” Though the administration’s chief Middle East negotiator, George Mitchell, recently resigned in frustration, Obama reembraced his negotiating strategy, calling for negotiations that focus on territory and security while postponing the issues of sovereignty over Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. Netanyahu has never liked that approach.

    One leader who may feel a little relieved is Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. True, Obama lambasted him, saying he had “chosen the path of murder.” But then he gave him one more chance. Assad, he said, “has a choice: He can lead that transition [to democracy] or get out of the way.” Plenty of Syrians will wonder why a dictator who has used tanks and artillery to gun down hundreds of unarmed civilians should still be regarded as the potential leader of a democratic reforms.

    In all, Obama’s speech contained plenty of his trademark soaring rhetoric about human rights and dignity and a broad U.S. commitment to support democractic transition in Arab states, economic development, and an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. But in most of the region’s capitals today, officials will be talking about those specific zingers.

  3. Ametia says:

    Obama prods Mideast allies to embrace reform, make peace
    By Scott Wilson, Updated: Thursday, May 19, 1:57 PM

    President Obama used an address Thursday on the tumult in the Middle East and North Africa to increase pressure on American allies in the region, including Israel, to carry out lasting political reform and make peace with old enemies.

    Speaking to diplomats in the State Department’s ornate Benjamin Franklin Room, Obama attempted to advance his project of bringing U.S. policy in line with his stated values of democratic reform and respect for human rights, acknowledging that “our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for change consistent” with those principles.

    Obama made clear he was referring to Yemen and Bahrain, but his speech omitted any mention of the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an American ally that has helped neighboring Bahrain crack down on its anti-government demonstrations.

    Obama used one of the longest sections of his speech to urge Israel, in unusually frank terms, to negotiate a final peace agreement with the Palestinians.

    For the first time, Obama cited Israel’s boundaries on the eve of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war as the basis for negotiation over final borders, saying that a “full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces” from the West Bank should be carried out in coordination with Palestinian security forces.

    The formulation goes beyond principles outlined by President George W. Bush, who stated during his term that “it is unrealistic to expect” Israel to pull back to the 1967 lines. Obama said the negotiations over final borders, which he indicated may include land swaps to accommodate Israel’s large settlement blocs, should result in “a viable Palestine, a secure Israel.”

    Obama acknowledged that the conflict’s most emotional questions — the division of Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital, and the right of Palestinian refugees or their descendants to return to homes inside Israel — would still need to be resolved. But he said moving forward now on the border and security aspects would provide a foundation for resolving the two “wrenching and emotional issues” in a “just and fair” manner.

    By doing so, Obama essentially embraced the middle ground between two camps within his national security team, which for months have debated how far he should go in spelling out his plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

    To reassure Israelis, Obama pledged an “unshakable” commitment to Israel’s security and called any future Palestinian state “non-militarized,” something Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has demanded. Netanyahu is set to visit Obama on Friday at the White House.

    “Precisely because of our friendship, it is important that we tell the truth: the status quo is unsustainable, and Israel must act boldly to advance a lasting peace,” Obama said. “The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.”

    The 45-minute speech was Obama’s first attempt to define the U.S. interest in the political changes taking place across the Middle East and North Africa, driven by a series of anti-government upheavals unfolding differently in countries from Libya through the Persian Gulf states.

    He declared flatly, “It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy.”

    Obama used plain prose throughout the address, drawing at times on specific stories from the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the ongoing protests in Syria to dramatize the policy he outlined. The State Department streamed simultaneous translations of the address in Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew, as it did for his address to the Islamic world in Cairo in June 2009.

    In that speech two years ago, Obama asked for a “new beginning” with Muslims, at home and abroad, endorsing democracy as the most stable form of government while pledging not to impose one system on another country.

    Directed primarily at the Arab Middle East, the reference was to Bush’s “freedom agenda,” which in the case of Iraq sought to bring democracy to Arab society by means of a U.S.-led military invasion. Administration officials said the scheduled U.S. departure form Iraq at the end of the year opens the door for a new American relationship with the region — a point Obama emphasized in his address.

    The speech Thursday, like the Cairo address, was shepherded largely by Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser who once worked for the former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.)

    Many of the same advisers involved in the first speech had a say in this address, from Vice President Biden and his senior national security staff to the pragmatic voices of national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon and his chief deputy, Denis McDonough.

    But since the Cairo speech, the anti-government uprisings, known collectively as the Arab Spring, have recast the region’s politics and energized the mostly young, Muslim populations now pushing against the political and economic barriers they have confronted for years.

    The challenge of Thursday’s speech, directed at both an audience of U.S. diplomats, European allies and the 400 million people of North Africa and the Middle East, was to balance the long-standing U.S. interest of stability in the oil-rich region with Obama’s pledge to support reform movements in a part of the world where some of the most powerful political forces are rooted in Islamist politics at odds with U.S. policy.

    “After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be,” Obama said. “As we do, we must proceed with a sense of humility.”

    Obama outlined a number of economic initiatives that he said would further that goal, drawn from a White House study of democratic transitions from Latin American Southeast Asia.

    Those include a total of $2 billion in debt relief and loan guarantees for Egypt, and pledges to focus multilateral lending institutions on the task of helping nations in revolt or beginning transitions to build viable economies.

    “The greatest untapped resource in the Middle East and North Africa is the talent of its people,” he said.

    Obama hesitated to fully back the anti-government demonstrations as they unfolded in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, following some European leaders in calling for regime change.

    He also has cautiously championed reform — but not changes in government — in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where the United States has more-potent interests in maintaining the status quo.

    But he acknowledged Thursday the U.S. challenge in standing by allies, such as Yemen and Bahrain, whose leaders have cracked down on the kinds of protests that Obama has encouraged elsewhere.

    In his strongest terms to date, Obama also condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has responded to a widening protest movement with a crackdown that human rights groups say has killed more than 920 people. Obama announced financial sanctions against Assad on Wednesday for human rights abuses.

    “President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way,” Obama said. “The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests, release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests, allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Daraa, and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition.”

    Obama’s response to the revolts has drawn mixed reviews in the region, according to a new poll conducted during a month of the Arab Spring.

    The Pew Global Attitudes survey published this week found that Obama’s outreach to the Islamic world has not improved the United States’ standing in some key Muslim-majority nations.

    Large majorities in those countries say the United States still acts with little regard for their interests, and even though Obama encouraged Europeans to take the lead in confronting Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, the prevailing sentiment is that America still acts alone.

    But within some Arab countries that have undergone political change this spring, Obama has won support from sizeable minorities.

    In Egypt, where demonstrators toppled President Hosni Mubarak, 45 percent of respondents approve of Obama’s management of the calls for change, the poll found. Obama demanded that Mubarak leave office, but only after weeks of demonstrations.

    “If America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for change consistent with the principles I have outlined today,” Obama said. “Our message is simple: if you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States.”

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