Obama Also Got It Wrong in the Middle East

Obama Also Got It Wrong in the Middle East

Bob Silverman

Security, Middle East

I had a ringside seat for U.S.-Israel relations during President Barack Obama’s first term as the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy to Israel. In the spirit of seeking to better understand these relations in those years, I offer one episode glossed over in the memoirs to date.

Dozens of recently published memoirs written by officials who worked for the Obama administration have helped us understand these officials’ backgrounds and views of actions taken and not taken. But like others in the memoir genre, the latest crop is generally self-justifying. Despite these glowing tomes, the Obama administration was far from the golden age for U.S. alliance, especially for U.S. allies in the Middle East.           

I had a ringside seat for U.S.-Israel relations during President Barack Obama’s first term as the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy to Israel. In the spirit of seeking to better understand these relations in those years, I offer one episode glossed over in the memoirs to date. That episode began with Obama’s speech entitled “Remarks by the President on the Middle East and North Africa” and delivered at the State Department on May 19, 2011.

This was Obama’s first major speech on the Middle East since the Arab Spring had broken out six months earlier. One of America’s most important Arab allies, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, had resigned in the face of angry crowds in Tahrir Square; dictators in Tunisia and Yemen had been toppled; America had intervened to prevent Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya from marching on Benghazi; Assad in Syria had started massacring his citizens; finally, Arab monarchs in the Gulf, Jordan and Morocco were shaken and one of them, in Bahrain, was facing mass protests

American diplomats in the region anticipated that the speech would lay out a new ground plan for addressing the unprecedented street protests then convulsing the entire Arab Middle East.

And Obama did exactly that in the first three quarters of the May 19, 2011, speech. But then he pivoted. “At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting [Israeli-Palestinian] peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever,” he said. Warning that Israel must act boldly, Obama stated that the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1949 Armistice lines with mutually agreed swaps.

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