President Obama’s decision to speak in Cairo this week is symbolically appropriate because, for better and for worse, that city highlights the multiple conflicts across the Middle East on which he must take sides.
What he says publicly and how he maneuvers privately in Cairo, and during his earlier stop in Riyadh, will either cement initial impressions of his foreign policy or signal a new direction from the United States.
Specifically, Obama will confront three key conflicts that divide the region: 1) authoritarianism vs. human rights; 2) Muslim states and non-state actors, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, vs. Israel; and 3) Iran vs. “moderate” Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia that seek to counter Tehran’s ambitions.
In taking sides (or at least tilting one way or the other), here’s what the president should keep in mind:
Authoritarianism vs. human rights: In choosing Cairo, Obama disappointed human rights activists who believe he should have picked Indonesia or another state where Islam mixes well with human rights. With Cairo, they say, he implicitly endorsed the authoritarianism of Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled since Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981 and has dealt harshly with democratic activism.
Obama’s human rights lethargy extends beyond Egypt, however. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled the administration’s direction when she refused to criticize China’s human rights record, saying that the two nations have bigger fish to fry.
Though Obama criticized Burma’s military junta last week for arresting democratic activist Aung San Suu Kyi, he said nothing after last week’s death of Libyan dissident Fathi El-Jahmi, who succumbed after seven years of brutal imprisonment for challenging the iron rule of Mohmmar Khadafy.
That President Bush’s Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, used a Cairo setting in 2005 to challenge Mubarak and other regional autocrats to allow for democracy makes things particularly dicey for Obama, for he surely wants to signal a break from Bush’s controversial policies, not an extension of them.
Nevertheless, Obama cannot avoid a basic reality: With his words in Cairo, he will put the United States behind either unpopular autocrats who mock American values or restive populations that could shape the future in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other key states for decades to come. He should lean toward the latter.
Muslim states vs. Israel: In choosing Cairo, which signed a peace treaty with Jerusalem in 1979, Obama signaled his hopes for a larger Arab-Israeli accord. But whether conditions on the ground warrant hope is debatable at best.
Obama hopes first to craft a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Then, building on Israel’s peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, he would construct a larger deal that would include other Arab states.
But, while Obama is pressing Jerusalem to halt West Bank settlements and providing support to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, obstacles to a two-state solution may be more basic than Washington’s approach suggests.
Hamas, which rules Gaza, accepts neither a two-state solution nor Israel’s right to exist. Even Abbas, who runs the more “moderate” Fatah party, refuses to accept Israel as a “Jewish state” – which is, of course, the very raison d’etre of the state that the United Nations created in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Nor is Israel’s existence accepted by Iran, which lies at the heart of the third conflict that Obama faces.
Iran vs. “moderate” Arab states: Obama says he views Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts as a prerequisite for cooperation by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and others to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
But rather than threatening to withhold support for U.S. efforts on Iran, those moderate states seem more worried that Washington will not move aggressively enough – in fact, that it will craft a long-term agreement with Tehran through which it will permit the latter to have nuclear weapons, forcing the moderates to build their own security blanket (with their own nuclear programs).
Obama must assure the moderates that, while he will first try to talk Iran out of nuclear weaponry, he will shift course and significantly pressure Tehran economically and otherwise well before it has a working nuclear program.
What Obama says privately to reassure Egypt’s Mubarak and Saudi’s King Abdullah will matter greatly. What will also matter is what Washington does about a related problem thousands of miles away – North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile tests.
Effective pressure on Pyongyang will reassure the moderate Arab states about the U.S. stance on Iran’s nuclear quest. Failure to apply it will merely encourage Tehran.