Obama's Delicate Middle East Pivot

By Robert Satloff

After appropriately exulting in the daring raid against Usama bin Laden, President Obama will connect that success to a broader theme - the Arab "winds of change" - whose prospects for success are certainly no greater than the 50/50 odds originally given for the Abbottabad mission. In so doing, the president will be hard pressed to maintain the aura of relevance, determination, and derring-do that has dominated administration talking points in the days since bin Laden's killing. After all, as difficult and frustrating as the decade-old search for bin Laden was for two presidents, that historic achievement will almost surely prove to be much less complicated and demanding than the task of bringing to a successful conclusion the quest for Arab democracy. Even for a powerful orator, the nuance required to navigate the country-specific details of America's approach to the Arab Spring makes this one of the most daunting communication challenges of Obama's presidency.

Parsing the Lessons

In recent days, the administration has drawn a link between Abbottabad and other aspects of its Middle East policy. For example, in a May 12 keynote address to The Washington Institute, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon drew a direct connection between the dogged, persistent pursuit of bin Laden and the administration's long-term commitment to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability: "The quiet and determined pursuit of bin Laden is not the only example of how President Obama matches his words with action. This is also the case with respect to Iran. President Obama has long understood the regional and international consequences of Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state. That is why we are committed to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. "Donilon's tagline was bold and confident: "We do what we say we will do."

Making this connection was timely and useful. With so much attention focused elsewhere - Libya, Syria, "Nakba Day," and so forth - Donilon delivered a salutary reminder that the administration appreciates the strategic context of the current situation, even if day-to-day events drive the news cycle. In the process, the president's bona fides on the Iran issue benefited from the impression left by Donilon's speech that, in extremis, the United States would not hesitate to either use military force or act unilaterally to achieve its objective, as was the case with bin Laden.

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But not every Middle East issue benefits from the reflected glory of Abbottabad. After all, when applied either to the Arab Spring or the peace process, the tactical lessons of Abbottabad seem irrelevant. In neither is the United States the key actor, nor will unilateral action - even if bold and determined - achieve the hoped-for result in either case. Indeed, the apparent inconsistencies of U.S. policy vis-a-vis the Arab Spring (e.g., calling for Hosni Mubarak's departure just days after Cairo's street protests took shape while refusing to denounce Bashar al-Asad despite weeks of protests and regime repression), combined with what certainly seems, at least in retrospect, like embarrassing certitude on the part of U.S. peace process policy (e.g., setting timetables for achieving an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and adopting a rigid position on the issue of Israeli settlement construction), only highlight the contrast between the administration's determined, flexible, low-key approach toward bin Laden and much of the rest of its Middle East policy.

The one message that does connect Abbottabad to the Arab democratic awakening is on the strategic level - the fact that bin Ladenism was dead long before bin Laden himself, that is, Arab and broader Muslim public opinion had rejected the most extreme forms of violent, nihilist radicalism long ago. But with courageous Arabs making this point with their lives in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, the president doesn't really need to host a major speech to add his voice to the chorus. And although the Arab Spring has provided an opportunity for the renaissance of other variants of Islamism that may be milder than bin Ladenism but are still intrinsically illiberal, anti-Western, and anti-American, it is unlikely that the president will dedicate his bully pulpit to warning about the dark side of this hopeful moment.

Learning the Lessons of the Past

A useful prism through which to assess the president's speech tomorrow is the extent to which he can find a workable framework for a very complex moment. In this regard, it is important to note how dramatically different the circumstances are today than when he spoke at the American University in Cairo in June 2009.

When the president delivered that "new beginning" speech, his target audience was the world's billion-and-a-half Muslims: "I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition." He then discussed seven themes (violent extremism, the peace process, religious freedom, democracy, nonproliferation, women's rights, and economic development) and a series of relatively small-bore economic and people-to-people initiatives.

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Robert Satloff is The Washington Institute's executive director and Howard P. Berkowitz chair in U.S. Middle East policy.

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