Obama Speech to Reset U.S. Mideast Ties in Wake of 'Arab Spring'

U.S. President set to outline new Middle East strategy meant to seize 'window of opportunity' after killing of bin Laden; administration officials say Obama expected to offer aid toward economic reform, democratization.

U.S. President Barack Obama will lay out a new U.S. strategy toward a skeptical Arab world on Thursday, offering fresh aid to promote democratic change as he seeks to shape the outcome of popular uprisings threatening both friends and foes.

In his much-anticipated "Arab spring" speech, Obama will try to reset relations with the Middle East, but his outreach could falter amid Arab frustration over an uneven U.S. response to the region's revolts and his failure to advance Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

obama - Reuters - May 7 2011

Obama is expected to unveil new economic aid packages to bolster political transitions in Egypt and Tunisia, nudge autocratic allies like Yemen and Bahrain to undertake reforms and harden his line against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Struggling to regain the initiative in a week of intense Middle East diplomacy, Obama is seizing what the White House called a "window of opportunity" in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs.

Obama aims to articulate a more coherent approach for dealing with unprecedented political upheaval that has swept the Middle East and North Africa in recent months, upending decades of U.S. diplomatic assumptions.

His speech, set for 11:40 a.m. at the State Department, is meant to counter criticism that he has been slow and inconsistent in responding to the swirl of events.

U.S. administration officials briefed reporters Wednesday night on the impending speech in which Obama is expected to stick with his approach of supporting democracy in the region whilst preserving longtime partnerships seen as crucial to fighting al-Qaida, containing Iran and securing vital oil supplies.

The officials said the U.S. president is going to put forward some economic proposals for the region, adding that the Obama administration believes that Tunisia and Egypt have the potential to be positive models of democratization for the other countries in region.

“It’s important to note that the political movements of nonviolent protests that we’ve seen are rooted in part in a lack of opportunity in the region”, said one of the officials.

He added, "you have very large populations of young people, too many of whom cannot find a job. You have a history not just of political rights being restricted but of economic corruption that has also frustrated opportunity."

The officials noted that the protests that have spread throughout the Arab world in recent months are due to lack of individual opportunity, economic growth and suppression of political rights.

They continued, saying that past successful transitions to democracy have been contingent upon "strong foundations for prosperity", adding that "reinforcing economic growth is an important way of reinforcing a democratic transition."

In light of this political reality, the officials said that the United States will take the necessary steps to support democracy in the region, adding that the Obama administration will focus on supporting "positive economic growth that can incentivize and reinforce those countries that are transitioning to democracy”.

The officials said that now is “a critical window of time for the United States to take some concrete action to demonstrate our commitment to their future and to reinforce their democratic transition with support for a broader base of prosperity”.

Another U.S. official spoke more about specific proposals, saying that the Obama administration would focus on four major pillars for economic growth and stability. He said that the U.S. will support better economic management, economic stability, and economic modernization and reform, helping to develop a framework for trade integration and investment in the Middle East and North Africa.

The officials noted that the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the IMF are working with the US and its partners to help with the transition.

The speech is set to address the broad context of political change in the region, the officials said, speaking of efforts that the U.S. is "undertaking to support human rights and democratic reform in the region and a broader interest in peace and security in the region".

The officials concluded the briefing, saying that although the U.S. will support positive change, it is ultimately going to be determined by the people of the region. However, they added that "one of the most important things that we can do is empower positive models of change”.