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The Middle East Speech That Obama Ought to Give | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

The Middle East Speech That Obama Ought to Give

The speech that President Obama needs to give tomorrow, but won’t:

My fellow Americans, today I want to speak to you about the events in the Middle East and beyond. Almost two years ago, in a speech in Cairo, I outlined my vision for a new American policy toward the Muslim world.

It’s fair to say that at that time America’s relations with the Arab and Muslim world were troubled and in profound disarray. Particularly after what I had earlier called America’s “dumb” war in Iraq, much of the region was alarmed and dismayed over what they recognized as a unilateral US attempt to impose democracy by force, an action that brought civil war and regional conflict to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Many countries in the region, including Iran and Syria, felt—not without cause—that they were next in line in an American campaign to transform the region by forcing regime changes. Other nations, too—Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia among them—harbored similar concerns. My predecessor’s threats against Iran, which he labeled as part of an “axis of evil,” had brought US relations with Tehran to the brink of confrontation. And underlying all of it, America’s failure to adopt an even-handed approach toward the conflict between Israel and Palestine had convinced many people in the region that the United States was not sympathetic to their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. It’s no secret that, in 2009, public opinion toward the United States was at an all-time low.

In my Cairo speech, to those in the region who were alarmed at America’s unilateralism in Iraq and elsewhere, I said that, in those countries, “We pursue no bases, and no claim on their territory or resources.” In that Cairo speech, and in my inaugural address and in a special message for the Iranian New Year, I reached out to Iran, offering to treat the Islamic Republic of Iran with dignity and respect. I acknowledged America’s and the West’s debt to Islamic civilization, quoted the Koran, and said, then, “I have known Islam on three continents.… Islam is part of America.” And on Palestine, I said: "The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own."

Sadly, we haven’t delivered.

On Iraq and Afghanistan, we have failed. Though we’ve reduced most of our military presence in Iraq, we’ve pressed the new Iraqi government to allow a substantial contingent of American forces to remain there beyond the deadline at the end of 2011 for our complete withdrawal, and we’ve escalated, to no avail, our war in Afghanistan. On Iran, we failed. When our engagement with Iran ran into difficulty, we didn’t try hard enough to sustain it, and instead we fell back into the familiar pattern of pressure tactics, economic sanctions, and confrontation. And on the Arab-Israeli front, we failed. Sadly, the deadlock there is, if anything, worse today than it was then. If people in that part of the world, struggling now to improve their lives and change their rulers, no longer have faith in the United States, I can’t blame them.

However, the bracing revolt that has swept across the region—from the Iranian uprising in 2009 to the Arab spring that has flowered from Morocco through Tunisia and Egypt into Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and beyond —has changed everything. I don’t take credit for it. That pressure for sweeping change occurred without prompting or intervention by the United States, an expression of long pent-up demands for self-government, freedom of expression, and economic progress. Yet it has inspired me, and it presents the United States with an opportunity for a new start in our policy toward the Middle East and the Muslim world.

I recognize that, this time, a speech isn’t enough. The time for pretty words and well-meant sentiments is past. I know that it’s time to deliver.

Therefore, I am announcing a series of initiatives, and I expect the people of the region to hold me accountable for each one.

First, on Iraq, I pledge that the United States will not seek to maintain a military presence in Iraq beyond 2011, and the 45,000 American troops there will depart before January 1. At the same time, I will convene a meeting of all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran, along with the United Nations to discuss Iraq’s requirements to rebuild its war-shattered infrastructure, especially its oil industry, its electricity grid, and its transportation system. And we will seek to enlist all of Iraq’s neighbors in a pledge not to interfere in its fragile ethnic and sectarian balance.

Second, on Afghanistan, I pledge today that the United States will begin a steady drawdown of US forces, removing at least 3,000 troops per month for the next two and a half years, by which time nearly all American troops will have departed. At the same time, I will work with all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, and with the international community, to convene a permanent peace process that will include all elements of Afghan society, including the Taliban, in search of a stable political accord.

Third, I will convene my national security team and ask them to give me a plan for the drawdown of American forces throughout the region. In Libya, we will halt our participation in the military effort there, and I will work with the Arab League, the African Union, and the UN in search of a plan for a political accord between the Libyan government and the opposition. In Bahrain, where, the presence of the US Fifth Fleet headquarters has unfortunately bolstered the Bahraini government’s confidence that it has American support for its crackdown against unarmed protesters, I will withdraw that fleet to remote naval facilities elsewhere pending my national security team’s reevaluation of America’s military presence in the region. And I am instructing the Pentagon and the State Department to review the tens of billions of dollars in arms sales to the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, in an effort to reduce the volume of weapons pouring into that region.

Fourth, on Iran, I will appoint a special envoy to work with Tehran, the UN, and the international community. To convince Iran of my sincerity, I am announcing that I am taking the so-called military option off the table, once and for all, in regard to Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, and I will make it clear to Israel, as well, that an attack on Iran is intolerable. I will seek a series of confidence-building measures with Iran that, step by step, will, I hope, pave the way for our two countries to put an end to their animosity, by dealing with our mutual interests in Iraq, Afghanistan, drug interdiction, and other matters. And on the nuclear front, I am announcing today that the United States will no longer seek the suspension of Iran’s enrichment program. Iran, like other nations, indeed has the right to the nuclear fuel enrichment process, as long as it proceeds under proper international safeguards that preclude the militarization of the program. Iran’s leaders can no longer hide behind the claim that the United States and the West is trying to usurp that right. But to break Iran free from the sanctions regime imposed by the UN Security Council, Iran will have to accept a more thorough and intrusive inspections program.

Fifth, on the issue of Palestine, I will announce next week a detailed outline of what I believe a solution ought to look like: the creation of a Palestinian nation on the West Bank and in Gaza, the complete withdrawal of Israel forces to the 1967 borders (with whatever adjustments the two sides agree on), the division of Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine, and the acceptance of the right of Palestinians to return to their homes, even though I recognize that most of that return will be symbolic within Israel’s 1967 frontier and that the Palestinians will require substantial compensation for their refugees and their descendants. To ease Israel’s security concerns, the United States will provide Israel with ironclad guarantees about its security and we will provide a ten-year commitment to station peacekeeping forces in the Jordan Valley.

Finally, as the people of the Arab world grapple with the challenges of remaking the region, the United States pledges not to intervene militarily. We urge everyone, including our long-time allies, to adapt to the necessity of modernizing their political systems. The time of autocrats, whether republican or monarchical, is past. The United States has no preference whether the people of the Arab world want a democratic republic, a constitutional monarchy, or some hybrid. But what I pledge now is that, in public and in private, the United States will take no action to prop up or sustain regimes that are no longer sustainable, whether they have been friend or foe.

As I said earlier, I expect to be held accountable for these policies as we move forward, together.

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