Obama’s ‘Major’ Speech on Arab World Hurt by Lofty Expectations

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 19: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the State Department on May 19, 2011 in Washington, DC. President Obama spoke about U.S. policy regarding the Middle East and North Africa. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) Photo: Mark Wilson/2011 Getty Images

When you present a speech as a "major" address on an important international issue such as the Arab Spring, you set high expectations. People expect you to say something different, something new, something bold. But President Obama didn't do any of those things this afternoon. In a nutshell, he reiterated America's support for democracy and freedom (duh) and focused on the way that economic development can foster them. He restated his obvious opposition to repressive dictators and violence against peaceful protesters. He warned Syria and Iran to behave themselves. He wants Israel and Palestine to agree to a peaceful two-state solution; his proclamation that they should adhere to 1967 borders, while the most newsworthy part of the speech because of its clarity and definitiveness, wasn't really a new position for the United States. And ... that was about it. There's nothing inherently wrong with a speech like that, but it didn't require the build up that it was given. If we hadn't been told that this was a major speech, we probably wouldn't have considered it one on our own. But after so much hype, people are bound to be let down by more of the usual, and you can see some of that in the reaction from the punditry.

Andrew Sullivan, Daily Dish/Daily Beast:

What to say? It strikes me as a classic example of Obama's community organizer past, except the community he is now attempting to organize is the maelstrom of passions and pathologies that define the Middle East .... He seems to capture the classic Obama tendency to see all sides, in a reflection of his unique Third Culture Kid capacity. And if he is leading, it is from behind, with an almost pathological pragmatism, combined with these periodic oratorical framing devices.

James Jay Carafano, Corner/National Review:

Today we got a history of the Arab Spring, a restatement of the principles of American foreign policy, a declaration that free markets are the cornerstone of economic development, and more cheerleading for the peace process. For this I had to miss the afternoon soaps?

Ed Morrissey, Hot Air:

Barack Obama showed up a half-hour late, and once again used the self-promoted White House occasion to say nothing specific, and nothing new. Even in the most specific part of the speech, regarding the American position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama offered nothing new. The entire speech could easily have been delivered by George W. Bush in its commendable but hardly inspirational cheering of democratization, which foundered on Obama’s decision to task Bashar Assad with leading democratic reform in Syria.

Jeffrey Goldberg, Atlantic:

Some people who are unhappy with this speech: The Saudis, who cannot believe, I am sure, that the President had the temerity to stand up for Bahrain's Shi'a (and all oppressed Shi'a, by extension): Bibi Netanyahu is also not overly thrilled, I think, but also not shocked or upset. The 1967 lines have always been the basis of negotiations — this is not new. But I'm sure Bibi doesn't appreciate lectures about challenges to Israel's democratic and Jewish nature. I hope he's listening, though.

David Ignatius , PostPartisan/Washington Post:

With much-ballyhooed speech on the Middle East, President Obama has set himself a challenge that can be summarized in two words: Follow through. Obama spoke with more clarity than some analysts had expected about the two most incendiary issues in the region right now: the violent suppression of protests sweeping Syria by President Bashar al-Assad; and the risk of a new Palestinian explosion if some peace process can’t be restarted .... The president admirably outlined the tasks for America in this Arab Spring. Now, just do it.

Jackson Diehl, PostPartisan/Washington Post:

President Obama’s Middle East speech contained a surprising amount of specificity — and in that, some real steel. Not just U.S. adversaries, such as Syria and Iran, but friends, such as Bahrain and Israel, were singled out for presidential pointers that will leave their leaders smarting.

Max Boot, Contentions/Commentary:

[T]oday’s speech at the State Department marks Barack Obama’s emergence as a full-fledged, born-again neocon firmly in the George W. Bush mold.

And from Twitter:

Mark Knoller, CBS News:

Michelle Malkin:

Glenn Thrush, Politico:

David Frum, Frum Forum:

Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution:

Ben Wedeman, CNN: