President Obama speaking at a Florida fundraiser in March. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais…)
Reporting from Washington — President Obama will seek to define his administration's stance toward the rapid changes in the Middle East and North Africa in a major address Thursday in which he will cast the U.S. as a facilitator rather than the instigator of political change in the Arab world.
As uprisings have swept through the region, Obama has been criticized from both the left and the right for taking too passive an approach. In Egypt, as demonstrators began demanding the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally, the administration initially seemed to vacillate on its course, and ended up angering Mubarak's supporters as well as his opponents.
In Bahrain and Syria, the U.S. has largely remained on the sidelines as authoritarian regimes have sought to crush domestic opposition. And in Libya, the U.S. has backed the use of NATO military power against Moammar Kadafi's regime in a limited fashion.
Critics have said the administration is merely reacting to events and lacks an overall strategy. Obama's speech, aides say, will give the president an opportunity to lay out the rationale for his approach.
One senior administration official said Obama wanted to prevent critics of the Arab democracy movement from being able to accuse the U.S. of meddling. He wants the U.S. to be in a position to offer support for expression of the popular will without "inserting the U.S. into the process."
In that regard, Obama's policy contrasts sharply with that of the George W. Bush administration, which put great emphasis on the U.S. freedom to act unilaterally and use military force to pursue its foreign policy goals.
In his speech, Obama will praise the idea of nonviolent protest and call on Arab leaders to take the demands of their people seriously without further violence.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney pointedly called on the Syrian government Tuesday to stop repressing its people, suggesting there is a limit to international tolerance.
Aides indicated the president might also use the speech to characterize Osama bin Laden, slain in a U.S. military assault early this month, as a figure of the past and the current uprisings as a repudiation of the Al Qaeda terrorist network's doctrine of violence.
Obama also will also discuss one of the region's defining disputes: the struggle between Israel and its Arab neighbors. He is expected to indicate that the administration will oppose a proposed U.N. resolution that would recognize Palestinian statehood and will emphasize the U.S. stance that direct talks between the parties, not unilateral efforts, are the best way to forge a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
Officials indicated that Obama would not offer any wide-ranging new American peace proposals.
After a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II on Tuesday, the president vowed to press toward a new round of Israeli-Palestinian talks, but he gave no hint of how or when he intended to try to restart them.
Administration aides have debated how specific the president should be in his call for peace. Some wanted him to lay out his prescriptions in detail, while others preferred generalized statements that would avoid aggravating Obama's tense relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or large segments of the American Jewish population, according to a person familiar with the White House discussions.
The atmosphere around the speech is politically charged. Republican presidential candidates are looking for weaknesses in Obama's foreign policy positions, and the White House is making an effort to rally Jewish leaders and other groups to its agenda.
Republicans have been hoping to capitalize on tensions between the president and elements of the Jewish community, a relationship that has been fluctuating since his high-profile speech in Cairo in 2009. Some of Obama's critics are already referring to this week's address as the Cairo sequel. Netanyahu will address a joint session of Congress next week as the guest of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
In a private briefing Tuesday for Jewish religious and other community leaders, four top White House aides portrayed Obama as an unwavering friend of Israel. The four included Daniel B. Shapiro, a national security aide and Obama's nominee as the next U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Those who attended the meeting said Shapiro described the Islamic militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as the rulers of Iran, as hardened enemies of Israel. He also spelled out the administration's opposition to the Palestinian proposal for U.N. recognition of its statehood.
The day after the speech, Obama will meet with Netanyahu, and on Sunday he will address the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel lobby.