Obama's Reset Opportunity on Middle East Policy

Speech unveils new emphasis in region.

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Since taking office, President Obama's policy in the Middle East has appeared to be mostly reactive, a stance that has earned him plenty of criticism. However, especially after his decision to launch the raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the president may have the momentum to change gears and push harder for greater stability and freedom. The speech he delivers late this morning laying out his vision for the region aims to capitalize on that inertia. "The thrust of the message will be that this is a region that has crushing economic, demographic, and political challenges, and that change is coming, and it's better for us to shape and influence that change rather than just simply pretend that some kind of status quo is sustainable," says Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

[See photos of the reactions to bin Laden's death.]

Those familiar with the region say its people are going to be watching closely to see what the president says. One challenge for Obama, then, is expressing leadership without necessarily taking the lead on changing the region. In other words, as Katulis puts it, Obama must avoid leaving "the impression in the region that any of this will have some sort of 'Made in America' stamp." The reason, he says, is that "any sense that the United States is driving this change could actually de-legitimize it in a sense, because people need to own it themselves." [See photos of the Obamas abroad.]

Bin Laden's death also affords Obama the opportunity to reset the U.S. message to the region. Yesterday, White House spokesman Jay Carney hinted that unlike recent presidential speeches on the region, this speech on foreign policy may be less about U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and more about the recent changes in the Middle East and North Africa. "In the last decade, our focus in the region was largely on Iraq, which was a military effort, and on the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the fight against al Qaeda," Carney said. "That fight against al Qaeda continues, but there is an opportunity in that region to focus on advancing our values and enhancing our security, and that's what the president looks forward to discussing tomorrow in his speech."

For certain, since it speaks directly to the democratic ideology of the United States, one talking point for the president will be the recent "Arab Spring" uprisings and the role of the United States in helping nations in the Arab world democratize. In particular, senior administration officials told reporters yesterday afternoon that the president will focus on economic development in countries that have already begun the transition to democracy, namely, Egypt and Tunisia. [Check out editorial cartoons about the "Arab Spring" uprisings.]

One official estimated that the administration is prepared to provide around $1 billion in debt relief and investment, as well as another $1 billion in loan guarantees in order to spur job creation and private investment in the countries. Likewise, the White House will urge international partners like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to provide additional assistance. The officials say that a boost in economic development support for Egypt, the largest Arab nation, and Tunisia, the vanguard in the Arab Spring uprisings, could be an incentive for people in other conflict-ridden nations to follow these countries' lead toward more democratic systems. "At the end of the day, the future is in their hands, and what we're trying to do is support them here," a senior administration official said Wednesday.

In step with the administration's plans for economic development in Egypt and Tunisia, the president is likely to touch on his talks this week with King Abdullah II of Jordan. In the talks, the White House committed several hundreds of millions of dollars to Jordan through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation that the president says could leverage as much as $1 billion for economic development there. In addition, the United States will provide the country with 50,000 metric tons of wheat to offset rising commodity prices there.