President Obama delivered a speech on U.S. policy in the Middle East on Thursday, May 19. Following his remarks, Carnegie hosted a media conference call with Marwan Muasher to provide analysis.




MR. CARVER:  (In progress) – Marwan’s reactions to the speech by President Obama, and I’ll start it with a couple of questions to Marwan, and then anyone who wants to jump in and ask questions, feel free.

So, Marwan, why don’t we just start by asking your initial reactions to the speech.

MR. MUASHER:  Thank you, Tom.  You know, even before the president gave this speech, I think there was not much expectation that he will say anything new, and in that way, he did not disappoint.  I still was a bit surprised at how little that is new he had in his speech.

He, you know, talked about the need for reform, but he did not mention key issues like the relationship with Saudi Arabia, I think.  He did mention Bahrain and Syria, but in the case of Bahrain, in almost sort of apologetic terms.  He mentioned that the status quo is not sustainable in the Arab world.  But he did not link that to what is going on in the Arab-Israeli conflict.  And I don’t think that people in the Arab world will take that lightly.

He talked about the Arab-Israeli conflict.  But it is clear that it was a speech with no actionable steps.  And as such, he talked about his resistance – his opposition to the U.N. vote in September.  But what he did not do is offer an alternative to Palestinians that would have them not go to the U.N. in September.

He talked about delegitimizing Israel, when actually the efforts are to delegitimize the occupation, rather than Israel.  And I don’t think that he made that distinction very well. 

He mentioned corruption.  Again, very passingly – corruption is one of the key issues in the Arab world today that Arab publics are no longer, you know, able to live with.  And I would have liked to see stronger emphasis on this issue.

So, all in all, I would say it was a speech that was large on platitudes, but with little actionable steps that go beyond what the United States has already said it would do.  This is a speech that would have been great two years ago, sort of like the Cairo speech.  But two years after Cairo, I think expectations were that the president would say more.

MR. CARVER:  So why do you think that he decided to give it?  I mean, was it just simply that we were coming up on the anniversary of the Cairo speech?

MR. MUASHER:  Different reasons.  You know, there was a debate in the administration that the president needed to give some direction, first, on the Arab-Israeli conflict, even before the Arab uprising issue came about.  And that, with the vote coming in September, the administration felt that they could not, you know, fight something with nothing.

And there were – there was a debate in that administration with those who wanted a more proactive approach and an actionable speech.  There were those who did not want that, that thought this was too risky, and wanted to suffice with the kind of speech that was delivered today.  Obviously, the ones that did want the proactive approach did not win.  I think that explains, in part, why Senator Mitchell resigned last week just before the speech was given.

My concern – my feeling is that at any rate, you know, with a speech like this, I think the United States is – its, you know, influence is declining in the region.  This is not going to help that decline.  And at any rate, I do not believe that the Palestinian street in particular, especially after September, is going to stay silent and wait for the U.S. presidential election before the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict is picked up again.

MR. CARVER:  What about the question of Syria?  Did you see any hint – suggestion that they were moving closer to calling for Assad’s resignation and removal from power?

MR. MUASHER:  Yes, I did.  I mean, of course, you know, the administration upped its stance a notch with sanctions against Assad in particular.  But to be – (inaudible) – fair to the administration, this is a situation where, you know, there are no easy solutions.  This is a regime that thinks there’s a – you know, zero-sum game for the regime.  If the regime opens up in any serious manner, being a minority regime, that is going to mean that the regime will be out, and therefore, you know, whether it’s the president or the people around him – are probably not interested in any serious reform process.

So you know, measures like sanctions are symbolic really.  But on the ground, when the choice to the regime is between sanctions and survival, they are not going to be that affected by sanctions.

Q:  Right.  And so your sense of how this is going to go down on the streets in the Arab world is that it’s – there’s going to be – people are not going to be impressed by it.  That they were hoping for more, and they didn’t get it.  Is that roughly your view?

MR. MUASHER:  I think so.  I mean, I think particularly with the events that were going on in January, there is a growing feeling in the Arab world that Arabs need to take matters into their own hands, that relying on the United States – over-relying on the United States – you know, has not produced results.

And I think the speech, frankly, will be more or less ignored for the most part.

MR. CARVER:  OK, let’s see if anyone wants to jump in at this stage to ask Marwan a question.

Q:  I had a question about how this might lead into next week’s trip to Europe for President Obama, and whether, you know, he can build on this with the G-8, or kind of how this fits into what he’s up to next week.

MR. MUASHER:  There are efforts, both here and in Europe, to – you know, have the body to coordinate sort of the support that must be given to the region.  And people are talking about the G-8.  The president himself said that the – (inaudible) – has to present a plan to the G-8. 

In my view, a plan that is purely economic does not work.  Economic reform without political reform has not worked in the Arab world, and any plan must integrate both elements into it.  Whether the G-8 is going to discuss this issue or not, I don’t know.  But you know, the administration yesterday in talking about economic reform made the point that economic reform must accompany political changes.

I would also argue the opposite, that political reform must accompany economic changes as well.  Without it, the benefits of economic reform have only gone to an elite few and have not trickled to the other citizens.

So there is, I think, a clear need for the two processes to go on at the same time in order to ensure a system of checks and balances.

MR. CARVER:  So the idea of this mini-Marshall Plan, you think, is a non-starter?

MR. MUASHER:  No, I don’t think it’s a non-starter.  I think – you know, some kind of a Marshall Plan is needed for the region.  But it must be a plan that incorporates not just economic support, but it must be a plan that includes a roadmap for political reform as well.

MR. CARVER:  Given this – while we’re talking about the trip next week, do you see any other country, any other group – the EU or others – stepping into that vacuum that you think is increasingly being left – a vacuum of leadership that is being left by the United States?

MR. MUASHER:  I think the EU is increasingly becoming frustrated, particularly on the Arab-Israeli conflict, that there has been no movement in the last two years, and that the status quo, as the president himself said, is not sustainable.  That is why I would not just look at the U.N. vote in September as purely symbolic.  I think that there are already countries in the EU, important countries like Britain and France, who are saying that they will vote over such a resolution.

There is a feeling in the EU that someone has to step in, and that you cannot just, you know, leave the process, leave the occupation as it is for an extended period of time, particularly given what is happening in the Arab world today.  You cannot have a policy that tells Egyptians and Libyans and Syrians that the international community is with them as they yearn for freedom, but when it comes to the Palestinians, it’s a different matter.  You cannot separate the two issues.

And this policy of – that the president himself talked about, the objectives of, you know, security, stability and democracy in the region cannot be divorced from the issue of space.  I think there is a realization in the EU that this is the case, and whereas there is a realization also here that this is the case, domestic policies are preventing the administration from moving more boldly and more proactively on this important issue.

MR. CARVER:  But it is usually said that America is the only one that has the leverage to be able to force the Israelis to make concessions.  Do you see the EU being able to have any impact on the Israeli position and to kind of start to force a peace?

MR. MUASHER:  Yes, well, of course, and I agree with that.  America is the one with leverage, and EU will not lead the process; they also understand that.  That does not mean that the EU cannot have any say.  I think that already the prospect of some members of the EU voting for this vote is already causing concern, not just in Israel but also in the U.S. as well.

And any rate, it is very difficult to believe that September will come and go, and that when the whole region is boiling, that the Palestinians having, you know, seen in September that they will not get a state – a state, frankly, President Obama promised last year, and expressed hope that by this September that, you know, Palestine will be a state in the U.N. 

If that comes and goes without the state, it is difficult for me to believe that the Palestinian state will not engage in peaceful resistance, not an armed struggle.  I mean, again the uprisings have shown the power of peaceful change; it is difficult to believe that they won’t do the same after September.

MR. CARVER:  Does anyone else have questions?

Q:  Yeah, I have a question, can I jump in?

MR. CARVER:  Sure.

Q:  About the 1967 – talked about the 1967 borders, can you talk about the president, about what he said about the ’67 borders and how significant that is?

MR. MUASHER:  I mean, this is – while this is certainly an important announcement, it’s not particularly new.  This has been the U.S. position for some time that any, you know, any solution is going to be based on ’67.  It is certainly, you know, good that the president has mentioned it, but let us notice also that while he has mentioned the basis of ’67, there was no mention of, for example, the issue of Jerusalem.  

Does this delineation of borders, according to ’67, mean that East Jerusalem will go back to Palestinian sovereignty or not?  And if it does not, then any talk about borders that does not include East Jerusalem is enough answer for the Palestinians; frankly, for all the Arabs and the Muslim world as well.   So while it is important that he mentioned it, I think that it is also just as important that he did not mention the other important parameter that would constitute a viable settlement of the country.

MR. CARVER:  Anyone else?  Do you, Marwan – maybe we could just talk a little about what your, you know, recommendations might be.  I mean, do you see a way forward from here for the Americans?  Do you think that they – if they are to put out their own – were to put out their own proposal, what it should contain?

MR. MUASHER:  Well, you know, even the debate inside the administration talked about Americans at least putting up parameters for a settlement that would be some form of a combination of the Arab Peace Initiative and the Clinton parameters.  Basically, things that the two partners themselves have reached via negotiations over, you know, 17, 18 years of negotiations.  But adding to that, the regional elements that would make it even more – (inaudible) – and conducive to the parties to reach a settlement, in which Israel gets peace and security with the whole Arab world and the Palestinians get a settlement that the Arab and Muslim world will support.

So this was the debate, whether the Palestinians – whether the president should do that or not; obviously he did not.  He talked about general parameters. even sometimes going, you know, less than what others, like President Clinton and others, have done.  His reference to the parameters that, you know, that constitute a viable settlement only talked about a viable solution for Palestine’s security for Israel. These are too general to really be translated into any actionable steps. 

MR. CARVER:  There was no mention of Saudi Arabia in the speech.  Did that surprise you?

MR. MUASHER:  It does in a way.  I mean, obviously the president, you know, talked with some honesty about long-term objectives for the United States sometimes being compromised by short-term interests, when he talked about the Bahrain issue.  And at least he acknowledged that publically, which I think is important to do.  What he did not acknowledge is the differences that the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia over this, and what can be done to either bridge these differences or address them.

MR. CARVER:  Right.  OK, anyone else want to ask a question?

Q:  Hello, is –

MR. CARVER:  Sure, you’re – please go ahead.

Q:  Yeah hi,  On that point on Saudi Arabia – not mentioning Saudi Arabia.  I mean, we know that, you know, Saudi troops were, you know, involved in the put-down of demonstrations and things in Bahrain.  What does that tell you that, I mean, that Saudi Arabia was simply just not even mentioned?  Is it just too much of a, you know, sacred cow – hot potato?  Is it just too – would have introduced a different level of, you know, U.S. interest; it was just easier to leave it out?  What does that tell you that – it seems to be a conscious decision.

MR. MUASHER:  I’m sure it is a conscious decision – (chuckles) – the reasons, we can speculate over.  If it means – if not mentioning Saudi Arabia is because the United States does not want to bring that issue out in the open and would rather address it privately with the Saudis, I mean, that is probably one possible explanation for this.  But whether that is true or not, I mean, the issue is not going to go away.  There is a new reality in the Middle East today, and that reality has to be addressed.  The Saudis have a different view of how it should be addressed, obviously, with security interests that they have for Iran and other issues.

The United States, as the president said, you know, is now advocating a policy that supports reform in Arab countries without really, you know, mentioning explicitly how it is going to do that when the reform interests conflict with, as he put it, the short term and other short-term interests that the United States has.  The president was not clear about how the United States would really attempt to marry the two objectives.

But I think that, you know, one cannot ignore that there is a rift today between the – and an increasing one – between the United States and the Saudis over, you know, what does support for political reform mean and what does support for allies of the U.S. in the region also mean.  And my hope, at least, is that even if this is not mentioned publically that at least it is going to be addressed at length by the president (ph).

Q:  Thank you.

MR. CARVER:  Marwan, do you think that the lack of any kind of very forceful message in today’s speech will kind of give comfort in some way to the autocrats that are still in power, as it were?  I mean, do you think that if you’re Assad or Saleh or someone, that they will feel that – you know, this is taken as a good sign from their point of view, that the U.S. are not going to actively be pushing the Arab Spring?

MR. MUASHER:  Well, it certainly will give comfort to the Israelis and to Mr. Netanyahu, who will not feel threatened to, you know, deal with any package that the United States might have put, or any parameters that it might have put on the table.

I take Mr. Netanyahu will come to town feeling very comfortable, and not under pressure to, you know, put forward any plan – any serious plan for the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

On the other – you know, on the other – I don’t think – in the Arab world, that is – I don’t think the president, frankly, said much that is new today about U.S. policy.  Support for reform in general terms, you know, is good to mention.  But the president did not go into specifics, as I said, about how to implement a policy that from now on supposedly will not prioritize stability over democracy, but will work for stability through democracy and reform.

How is it going to do that while, at the same time, ensure its short-term interests regarding security, regarding oil, and probably regarding Israel?  That is not clear.  I had hoped that the president would provide more clarity in this speech on how to do that, and he did not.

MR. CARVER:  OK.  Well, we’re down to the last couple of minutes.  Does anyone else want to – have a question for Marwan?

Marwan, do you have any final thoughts you wanted to say?

MR. MUASHER:  No, I think I –

MR. CARVER:  I mean, maybe you can just tell us what you think the next – how this is going to kind of pan out going forward between now and the September vote.  I mean, are we going to see nothing move?

MR. MUASHER:  Look, I mean – yes.  I think – as I said, I think the United States is – like I said, its influence is not only declining in the process, but it has sort of chosen, now, on the Arab-Israeli conflict – it has chosen to take itself out of the game.  So such a speech, which clearly sends a signal that nothing serious is going to be attempted before the U.S. presidential election.

We do have a vote in September that is going to take place, whether the United States opposes it or not.  In my view, it will be more than symbolic because it will result in a vast majority of the international community recognizing a Palestinian state on the basis of ’67, including certain members of the EU.

But what is new in all this, beyond what I’ve said, is the Arab street.  There is, today, a new development.  Being the Arab street, we don’t have the luxury of time that we had before in waiting until the conditions become ripe for such a solution.  The Arab street is making sure that the pace at which these issues are addressed has become much faster.  And I would – you know, I would have liked to see the president acknowledge these realities and, you know, propose policies that address them.  He did not.

And as a result, I think that there will be an increasing feeling in the Arab world that the Arabs need to take things into their own hands, particularly on this issue, even while they would have hoped that the U.S. would have adopted a more proactive policy on it.

MR. CARVER:  OK.  That’s great.  Thank you very much.  Well, if there are no more questions, then I think that’s – let’s wrap it up.  That was a great tour de force.  Thank you very much, Marwan, and thank you to everyone who joined.  The transcript will be available, as soon as we can get it transcribed, up on the website.  And if you would like a copy, please let Carly (sp) know by emailing her. 

Thanks very much to everyone.  Take care.

MR. MUASHER:  Thank you.