President Obama's second Middle Eastern speech on Thursday was very different in tone and substance from his first in Cairo back in 2009.
His first "new beginnings" speech was defensive, an effort to repair longstanding mistrust between the Arab Muslims and America. Now with the killing of Usama bin Laden behind him, Obama could gloat that Al Qaeda had failed. But on the democracy front, he was largely responding to dramatic upheavals that Arabs themselves had wrought, with virtually no prodding or help from the U.S. This was Obama's "get on the right side of history" speech.
Comparing those speeches reminds us of how profoundly the Arab world has changed since Obama headed for Cairo.
For one thing, there were no apologies in this speech for America or American foreign policy in the Middle East, no quotes from, or repeated references to the "Holy Koran," as there were back in 2009.
For another, the president emerged as a full-throated, if still somewhat inconsistent proponent of the freedom and democracy agendas that former President George Bush embraced after 9/11, only to abandon them in his second presidential term.
Though he insisted in both speeches that democracy could not be imposed by force, Obama could not have been more adamant about naming and shaming the Arab leaders who he thought had to yield power – Yemen and Libya -- and if their leaders do not stop killing protesters and denying legitimate demands for freedom, less corrupt and more responsive governments, Bahrain, America's long-term ally in the Gulf and home to the Fifth Fleet, and Syria, with whom the administration had been negotiating.
Third, this speech was far tougher on Iran than was the Cairo speech or any of his earlier pronouncements. Gone was the genteel reference to the "Islamic Republic of..." The president just spoke of "Iran," and harshly at that. He denounced Teheran's hypocrisy in endorsing the overthrow of tyrants while killing and repressing its own people. There was no renewed call for "engagement" or "negotiations" as there was in the Cairo speech. Teheran had its chance, and blew it, President Obama seemed to imply.
Finally, his discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict – not the core of his remarks any more than it is the heart of the instability dogging the region – managed to infuriate almost everyone.
Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu immediately rejected the president's suggestion that a final resolution of the contract would involve Israel's eventual return to the 1967 borders with land "swaps" to achieve "secure and defensible borders."
But Hamas denounced the speech even more harshly. Sami Abu-Zuhri, the spokesman in Gaza of militant Islamic Hamas, which rejects Israel's right to exist, called the speech a "total failure." "Obama is the one who needs the lesson given his absolute endorsement of Israel's crimes and his refusal to condemn Israel's occupation, he said. "The (Arab) nation does not need a lesson on democracy from Obama." he said, adding that the group would "not recognize the Israeli occupation under any circumstances."
Any speech that Hamas, which is on the U.S. terrorist list, hates that much must have something to recommend it. And indeed it does.
Athough many supporters of Israel are upset that President Obama referred to the 67 borders with unspecified "land swaps" as the base line for borders of future Israeli and a Palestinian state, this was not really new. It was just made explicit for the first time.
Palestinians and Israelis had already negotiated prospective borders for two states along those lines in peace talks held under presidents Clinton and Bush, offers that the Palestinian negotiators, not Israel, ultimately rejected, incidentally. My friend Rob Satloff, the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, complained that Obama's speech "concretizes a move away from four decades of U.S. policy based on U.N. Security Council resolution 242 of November 1967, which has always interpreted calls for an Israeli withdrawal to "secure and recognized" borders as not synonymous with the pre-1967 boundaries." But Obama amended his reference to 1967 borders with land swaps notion by saying that any division of land had to achieve "secure and recognized borders."
There was much that friends of Israel should like about the speech and the peace process. For instance, President Obama personally endorsed the insistence that the Palestinian state would have to be de-militarized.
He also all-but-dismissed the agreement between the more pragmatic, Palestinian West Bank leadership and militant Hamas as being a non-starter, suggesting that Israel could not be expected to negotiate with a group that rejects its right to exist. Even more encouraging was his portrayal of the Palestinian initiative to ask the United Nations General Assembly to declare a Palestinian state in September a "symbolic" diversion of time and effort and a colossal waste of time.
Perhaps most telling of all was the presence of George Mitchell in the audience at the State Department, not as a Middle East peace negotiator. The fact that Mitchell, who reportedly had earlier urged Obama to highlight settlements as the most important obstacle to peace, resigned just prior to the speech, and that President Obama did not replace him before he delivered what was billed as such a major policy speech suggests that Washington does not expect negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to begin anytime soon.
Arab-Israeli peace was clearly the caboose of this Middle Eastern train – a car that seems no place close to leaving the station.