Accessibility links

Breaking News

When Addressing the Mideast, Obama Must Choose Words Carefully

As President Barack Obama takes office on January 20th, expectations appear to be high among the people of the Middle East that he will bring new vigor and new focus to U.S. policy in the region. But experts say there is also widespread doubt that President Obama's Middle East policies will be significantly different than those of the Bush administration.

So what should Obama say to the Middle East? That was the question before a panel of Middle East experts convened recently by two Washington-based nonprofit groups - the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Project on Middle East Democracy.

Click to view video excerpts from panel

President must act on promise of change

J. Scott Carpenter, former deputy assistant secretary of state for the Near East in the George W. Bush administration, said the new American president must go beyond promises when he talks to the people of the Middle East.

"He has to take certain actions to demonstrate that the United States is turning the page with the region, " said Carpenter. "For instance, he will try to close Guantanamo Bay. It is very important to do that. He will assign an envoy to the Middle East immediately. He will seek to withdraw troops from Iraq on time and be able to say, 'Look, I did this.' But the challenge for him is that it will not be enough, because the expectations are so high."

Carpenter believes Obama must restate America's core objectives in the Middle East: partnering with governments and peoples to create opportunity for political and economic success; partnering with Iraqis to rebuild their nation; and partnering with Palestinians and Israelis to reach a peaceful settlement of their long-standing territorial and security issues.

Peace and justice, development and democracy among goals for Middle East

Michele Dunne, a veteran Mideast policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment, said she believes the new president should use both his inaugural address and a major policy speech during his first 100 days in office to articulate his vision for the region. Dunne suggested that Obama frame his policy in the Middle East around four general goals: peace, justice, development and democracy.

"I think that these reflect the aspirations of the people in the region, and they are linked in some ways," Dunne observed. "There would not be peace in the region without justice, and I think there would not be economic development and prosperity without movement toward democracy, just and accountable governance."

Dunne warned against expectations of a drastic change in U.S. policy toward the Middle East, and said it is especially unrealistic to expect Obama to offer any radical new solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But Dunne said she expects the new president to make clear that he cares deeply about this deadlocked conflict and that he intends to play an active role in mediating it.

Personal pledge to make policy changes could enhance credibility

According to Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network and a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, the new president should make it clear that he rejects the notion of any so-called "clash of civilizations" underway between the western and Muslim worlds. And Hurlburt believes Obama can at least begin the task of restoring America's standing with the people of the Middle East by speaking directly to their concerns with a personal pledge.

Hurlburt said Obama should say, "I am making some specific policy changes. I have already made them by the time I am talking to you, and here is what they are."

"And he should talk about Guantanamo, about Iraq and about re-engaging in the Middle East peace," Hurlburt added. "And then, [he should convey a] message of modesty: that the U.S. is not going to swoop in and solve all of your problems and do everything for you. Wwe are going to be there working with you [as you] change things yourselves."

Hurlburt added that Obama should also pledge to use "tough love" in his dealings with both Israel and the Palestinians to help them reach an historic peace agreement.

President must show respect for Islam and sensitivity to history

Many people in the Middle East are doubtful that U.S. policy in the region is about to change significantly. But according to Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya, a major Arab satellite news network, Obama has been working hard to demonstrate - even before his inaugural speech - that he won't be walking in the Bush administration's footsteps.

"He is sending signals that he is not going to pursue the policies of George Bush," Melhem said. "In fact, he was saying, 'I am not going to wait until the end of my administration to revive the peace process.' But is he going to engage now, and at what level? Is he going to allow his secretary of state to lead the charge? In the end, I think he understands that nothing happens of substance in the Middle East unless the president himself is engaged and engaged directly and forcefully."

Melhem said he believes Obama will also need to show, in his inaugural and subsequent speeches, a respect for Islam and a sensitivity to some historical realities. He said Obama must acknowledge that a legacy of western colonialism has left deep-rooted grievances in the Muslim and Arab worlds.

And Melhem said Obama should use the unique credibility he now enjoys to convince a wary audience that in the battle against radical Islamists using violence and terrorism to achieve their political goals, peace-loving Arabs and Muslims around the world can find powerful common cause with the United States.