President will call for a new chapter of support for Arab Spring

President Obama will declare that the U.S. is firmly in support of democracy in the Arab world in a major speech Thursday intended to show administration policy has caught up with rapidly unfolding events in the Middle East.

White House officials on Wednesday touted Obama’s address as “beginning to turn the page to a more positive and hopeful future for U.S. policy in the region,” following the killing of terrorist Osama bin Laden and the near completion of the drawdown of American troops in Iraq.

As if to underscore its “change” credentials, the administration on Wednesday froze the assets of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other officials in the Damascus regime. It also put new pressure on Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to sign an agreement that would force him out of power within a month. 

“Clearly in anticipation of the speech, the administration felt like it was important to make a couple of dramatic moves [Wednesday] — one pushing a semi-friend and one pushing a semi-enemy,” said Josh Block, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Administration officials hope Thursday’s speech will answer critics who have questioned the president’s credibility in the region.

The White House came under fire earlier this year as sending a muddled message over intensifying calls for the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

More recently, GOP critics have accused the administration of not being forceful enough with Syria after Obama approved U.S. airstrikes in Libya. 

The White House has said it is imperative that the U.S. not be viewed as interfering in the Middle East amid turmoil across the region that has also touched Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Obama is not expected to spend much time discussing the Middle East peace process in his remarks at the State Department despite a Friday White House visit from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This reflects the lack of prospects for progress toward a Middle East peace deal, said pro-Israel sources in Washington.

George Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, announced his resignation last week, and recent moves by Palestinian and Israeli governments have further dimmed prospects for successful talks. 

Emphasizing the Middle East peace process might also make it easier for Syria and other autocracies in the region to argue U.S. pressure on their governments is related to U.S. support for Israel. 

Block said if Obama were to focus heavily on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “it would provide that same excuse, that same distraction but this time at our hands, and that would be a fundamental mistake.”

“I think there’s no question that the more important place to put the emphasis is on the Arab Spring,” Block said.

Obama will likely speak more about Israel in an address to AIPAC on Sunday.

Senior administration officials said Obama will offer economic assistance to Tunisia and Egypt in his Thursday speech to emphasize U.S. support for those who have overthrown autocratic regimes. The pro-Democracy movement began in Tunisia before quickly spreading to Egypt and other countries.

The proposals include a series of multilateral economic incentives and the forgiveness of about $1 billion in Egyptian debt to the U.S. over the next two to three years, officials said.

“Reinforcing economic growth is a way of reinforcing democratic transitions,” one administration official said.

The U.S. hopes the two countries can serve as “positive models” for democratic reform in the region amid worries that the new government of Egypt could be more anti-Israel than Mubarak’s regime. Egypt is one of two countries in the Arab world with a peace agreement with Israel, but the deal is deeply unpopular with its people.

Obama should use the speech as an opportunity to encourage new democracies in countries like Tunisia and Egypt that foster and embrace human rights, Block said, instead of governments and groups that align themselves with Iran or extremist groups.

Other experts questioned whether pro-Democracy groups in the Middle East will put much stock in what Obama says, however.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said “there’s not a huge amount of curiosity about what the president thinks” in the region. 

That said, Alterman believes Obama needs to address two audiences with his speech: the region’s revolutionaries and Americans wondering what U.S. policy toward the region entails.

For the Arab audience, Obama needs to “be relevant without taking over” and show the people of the region that the U.S. is supportive of their aspirations.

For the audience at home, the president needs to “outline a strategy that communicates what he thinks the dynamics [of the region] are and how he thinks the U.S. can steer things in a constructive direction.”