He didn’t sugarcoat the way people have been manipulated in the region for too long: “In the face of these challenges, too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere. The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half century after the end of colonialism. Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression. Divisions of tribe, ethnicity and religious sect were manipulated as a means of holding on to power, or taking it away from somebody else.”
He made sure no one could doubt where we stand on the change sweeping the region (while specific responses to specific situations may, and should, vary): “Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short term interests do not align perfectly with our long term vision of the region. But we can – and will – speak out for a set of core principles – principles that have guided our response to the events over the past six months:
“The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region.
“We support a set of universal rights. Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders – whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.
“And finally, we support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.”
When he WAS specific, he was generally right: “The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way. The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests; release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests; allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Dara’a; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition. Otherwise, President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and isolated abroad.”
Finally, he committed us to the most empowering thing we can do for people in the region, and for ourselves — help them bring something other than oil to the world economy: “Fourth, the United States will launch a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa. If you take out oil exports, this region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland. So we will work with the EU to facilitate more trade within the region, build on existing agreements to promote integration with U.S. and European markets, and open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement. Just as EU membership served as an incentive for reform in Europe, so should the vision of a modern and prosperous economy create a powerful force for reform in the Middle East and North Africa.”
Were there weaknesses? Yes, from my perspective. I could have done without another ritualistic slap at our decision to go into Iraq, which took this form: “…we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to impose regime change by force – no matter how well-intended it may be.”
But I don’t think he meant it quite as negatively as that sounded at first, as I determined upon rereading it. I realized that after I heard this strong endorsement of what has been achieved there: “In Iraq, we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy. There, the Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence for a democratic process, even as they have taken full responsibility for their own security. Like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress. As they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.” None of which would have happened, of course, with Saddam Hussein still in power.
On the whole, a speech that hit the right notes, and was a coherent and appropriate American response to a complex web of events and issues of critical importance to the world.