Obama's Mideast Policy Speeches: Then and Now

It seems the U.S. president has changed his approach to discussing the United States' Middle East policy since his last speech, which he presented in Cairo in 1999.

Almost two years separated two major speeches presented by U.S. President Barack Obama about the United States' policy on the Middle East.

On June 4, 2009, the American president went to Cairo to deliver the message of a "new beginning” to the Muslim world and on May 19, 2011, he acknowledged the changes the United States has made and intends to continue making in the Middle East.

Obama - Reuters - 19.5.11

In his 1999 Cairo speech Obama made a greeting in Arabic and quoted the Qur’an, acknowledged the greatness of the city and nation that hosted him, and pledged that the United States was not and will not go to war with Islam, despite the fact that it had no intention of giving up the hunt of terrorists who threaten its security.

Obama urged the people to get rid of mutual stereotypes, and when he mentioned the importance of democracy, women rights and the importance of economic development, he said Iraqis would rule their destiny and pledged support for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The U.S. President spoke in 1999 about his order to prohibit harsh interrogation techniques and to close the detention facility in Guantanamo. Still, at the time, the declaration of principles was more important than the urgent need for a specific plan to support changes that were already happening.

In 2011 Obama made his speech at home, in the elegant Benjamin Franklin room of the State Department. This time there were no greetings in Arabic or quotes from the Qur’an. The president spoke as much to the citizens of America as he did to those of the Arab world. He came to talk specifics, and to tick off some of his tangible achievements.

Not surprisingly, the Guantanamo facility – that is still very much functional – was left out of this speech. What he did mention was the United States' plan to economically assist Arab states currently undergoing transition, including $1 billion of debt relief and $1 billion in loan guarantees for Egypt. He also stressed the end of the United States' military involvement in Iraq, including the removal of 10,000 American troops, and the death of Al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden.

“Bin Laden was no martyr. He was a mass murderer who offered a message of hate… He rejected democracy and individual rights for Muslims in favor or violent extremism," said Obama. "Even before his death Al-Qaida was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life."

In his Cairo speech, the U.S. President made many Israel-supporters angry when he mentioned the suffering of Palestinian refugees straight after discussing the Holocaust. He also mentioned the need for a two-state solution without mentioning any specific borders.

This time, Obama mentioned the 1967 borders with mutually agreed territory swaps, which was sure to make Israeli right wing supporters angry – especially in light of the recent Hamas-Fatah reconciliation.

But Obama, fully aware of the concerns of his Jewish American donors and his pending speech at the AIPAC conference this weekend, where will host about 10,000 activists from all over the United States, decided to mention the 1967 borders; a solution that has been heard before.

"The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state”, he said, adding that the "full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state."

“Israel must be able to defend itself - by itself - against any threat," said Obama. "Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security."

Obama acknowledged that addressing issues of territory and security alone would not resolve the conflict, for questions regarding Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees would remain. But, he said, they may provide "a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.”

The U.S. president also mentioned the recent reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, saying it raises "profound and legitimate questions for Israel. He asked, "How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?" adding that the Palestinian leaders will need to provide a credible answer to that question.