Middle East Speech: A Tall Order for the President

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Obama will have to satisfy critical audiences at home and in the Muslim world

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With his long-awaited policy address on the Middle East on Thursday, President Obama is facing a difficult rhetorical assignment.

In the Arab world, his audience will be listening to hear how the president squares his backing of military action against Libya's Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi while taking a far less aggressive posture in response to crackdowns by the regimes in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. Israelis and Palestinians wonder whether Obama will weigh in with thoughts on restarting peace talks. And Americans will be focusing on how Obama pivots from a tumultuous period in the Arab world to explaining his long-term vision for U.S. involvement in the region.

Administration officials say Obama's speech will be wide ranging but will also go into details about ongoing efforts at political reform in the region, outline what his administration is doing to support human rights, and offer his views on the United States' broader interests in peace and security in the region.

"The president views the situation in the Middle East as a moment of opportunity ... as a real moment of opportunity for America and for Americans," said White House press secretary Jay Carney. "In the last decade, our focus in the region was largely on Iraq, which was a military effort, and on the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the fight against al-Qaida. That fight against al-Qaida continues, but there is an opportunity in that region to focus on advancing our values and enhancing our security."

The president will also unveil a series of economic development proposals for Egypt and Tunisia--two nations that he will hold up as stalwarts in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Administration officials say Obama will unveil plans to offer $1 billion in debt relief to the nations and another $1 billion in loan guarantees to help jump start economies that have been weighed by down corruption and high unemployment rates.

"We also know from our study of the past that successful transitions to democracy depends, in part, on strong foundations for prosperity," a senior administration official said. "Reinforcing economic growth is an important way of reinforcing democratic transitions."

The president sees this as a moment to take a deep breath and reflect. In the six months since a young Tunisian fruit vendor lit himself on fire in protest, pro-democracy uprisings have toppled two regimes and ignited popular revolts in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Syria.

But he faces a skeptical audience in the Muslim world. A new Pew Research Center poll released on Tuesday that was conducted in six predominantly Muslim nations and the Palestinian territories showed widely-held negative views of the United States and a lack of confidence in Obama.

The survey was conducted in Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia, Lebanon, Pakistan, and the Palestinian territories from late March to April. Obama's favorability and confidence numbers ranged from 13 percent in Jordan to 54 percent in Indonesia--a country where he spent four years as a child.

Image credit: Larry Downing/Reuters

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Aamer Madhani is a correspondent (White House) for National Journal.

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