This morning, the focus of discussion on Barack Obama’s speech is what it means for the future of Israel and Palestine. That's significant, of course, but what is being left aside so far are Obama's goals in domestic politics.
Obama has a looming deadline, one that could have made his life difficult if he did not have Congress on his side. Under the War Powers Act, the President of the United States can pursue combat under emergency circumstances for up to 60 days before having to seek permission from Congress. After this point, if permission is denied, the President has only 30 days to withdraw troops from combat.
The U.S. military is currently conducting airstrikes in Libya, and a report must be made to Congress by today. So far, leading Congressmen, both Republicans and Democrats, have made it clear that they have no intention of invoking the War Powers Act. Obama's objective yesterday was to ensure this did not change; in the Libya section of his speech, he gave assurances that the US was not seeking "regime change" but had intervened to save civilian lives from the assault of Muammar Qaddafi's forces.
So one immediate challenge met, but more to come. With Osama bin Laden dead and the deadlines approaching for a completion of troop withdrawal from Iraq (31 December), and a start in Afghanistan (July), US obligations from Central Asia through the Middle East are rapidly changing.
Despite the planned troop drawdown in Afghanistan, the American people are increasingly frustrated with the war. Obama faces uncertainty in the Middle East: Egypt and Tunisia have already undergone revolution, Syria and Yemen are facing their most serious challenges yet, and Bahrain, while successful in quelling dissent, has caused Washington public-relations problems with Saudi-led military intervention and its detention of political prisoners.
So how to show that the US is doing something abroad while building political capital at home? Obama's attempted resolution came through his references to foreign aid.
On the surface, this would seem to be the donning of another burden by the President. Many conservatives have long worked to cut foreign aid. In his 2008 campaign, John McCain declared that he would “Put America First,”and these efforts have been intensified by the recent Libertarian/Tea Party wave in the Republican Party.
Obama's response on Thursday was that the roots of instability in the Middle East had as much, or more, to do with economics than any political or cultural issue. Obama compared the economic development of the Arab world with US and European investment in Eastern Europe after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, and he pledged to “focus on trade, not just aid; on investment, not just assistance,” an attempt to reassure Americans that the US will also benefit from a thriving Middle East.
And the President tried to quell fears about these mysterious people behind the Arab Spring. Many US politicians and analysts have promoted the argument that Al Qa'eda has infiltrated the Libyan rebels, that the Yemeni opposition movement is comprised mostly of terrorists, and that the Syrian opposition group is an existential threat to Israel. Conservative talk shows and politicians have raised concerns about a strengthening of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Obama's speech was loaded with favourable rhetoric about the pro-democracy protesters, the opposition movements, and the youth of the Middle East. He responded to the spectres of "terrorism" and anti-Americanism within the uprising with the recongition that sometimes the US might not like what the people of the Middle East might say or that the short-term goals of the region might not align with those of Washington. Throughout the speech there was a consistent theme, that the US must stand with the people of the Middle East, and that the world has little to lose but much to gain from the Arab Awakening.
And then, in the final part of the speech, there was Israel and Palestine.
As is becoming his trademark, Obama sought middle ground. He expressed sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians who were enduring “occupation”, but he also condemned them for failing to recognize Israel and from walking away from the negotiating table. He expressed sympathy for the Israelis who live in fear of terrorism, but he criticised West Jerusalem for expanding settlements.
Above all, Obama --- even with his headline statement that a settlement should be based on 1967 borders --- stressed the paramount concern of providing Israel with security. This was designed to satisfy the fears of the pro-Israel lobby, but in the context of the speech, it also provided the cover to move the American public’s perception of the problem to a practical, and urgent, consideration of the importance of making concessions to establish a peaceful solution.
Little new was said in this speech, despite the hype. Negotiations between the US and other nations, especially on issues as complicated at Israel and Palestine, do not happen in a public forum in a 40-minute address. This moment at the podium is unlikely to have a huge effect on how the international community, or the Middle East, views Obama.
Instead, the President was looking at many of the Republicans who have vowed to block him at every turn, many Democrats who are frustrated with the lack of progress in his foreign policy, and many Americans who are scared of what they do not understand, namely a rapidly-changing political situation in the Middle East.
This was an audience that Obama saw. This was the audience he will need to win if he expects to accomplish any of his goals before a heated election campaign in 2012.