Arab Experts Say Obama Should Stand Behind Mideast Movements

President Obama will deliver a major speech this week on U.S. policy in the Arab world. With revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, protests in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, and U.S. involvement in the conflict in Libya, the speech comes during dramatic change in the region. Host Michel Martin discusses the speech and implications with Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of the Daily Star in Beirut, and Hisham Melham, Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

President Obama is scheduled to give an important speech this week on U.S. policy in the Arab world. It's expected to be his most significant address to the region since his visit to Cairo in 2009. And of course it comes at a time of dramatic events. The death of Osama bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. forces, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, ongoing protests in Yemen and Libya and Syria and on Israel's borders.

We are going to talk with several commentators with deep knowledge of the region as we look ahead to the speech. In a few minutes, we'll hear perspective from an Israeli commentator who's also fluent in Arabic and reports on Palestinian affairs. We'll hear what he has to say in light of Sunday's massive demonstrations on the anniversary of the founding of Israel, where at least 12 people were killed.

But first, we wanted to hear from two men, well known commentators on the region. We've called upon them before for their insights. Rami Khouri is the editor-at-large of the Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon. He happens to be in Washington at the moment, and we caught up with him at the studios of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Rami, thank you for joining us again.

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you.

MARTIN: Also with us, Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for the television news network Al-Arabiya, which is based in Dubai. Many might remember that he had the first formal one-on-one interview with President Obama just a week after his inauguration and he's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome back to you as well. Thank you for joining us.

HISHAM MELHEM: Thank you.

MARTIN: Hisham, why don't I start with you. Here in the U.S., the speech is generating lots of anticipation, obviously. We're having this conversation. But how is it being reported on in the Arab world? Is there similar interest?

MELHEM: We are planning like other satellite stations to carry it live and there will be tremendous commentary before, during and after. Everybody would like to see the president restate certain principles. And we believe that he will be talking about the two main issues now. The momentous events taking place in North Africa and the Middle East, so-called Arab Spring, as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict. And his views and his vision of a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also how he believes that the best way is for the United States to help the Arab Spring.

And I think here he will stress certain principles that political change should occur peacefully. He will be calling on those governments that are resisting political change not to use violence. We expect that he will take a tougher position on a country like Syria. And on the Arab-Israeli conflict, we expect that he will stick to basic American principles, no settlements, a resolution based on the '67 border, urging the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, sharing Jerusalem as a capital for the two states in the future, and calling on the Palestinians to totally renounce any kind of violence.

So he's going to stick to certain principles. But I think most Arabs at this stage are watching what he will be saying about Libya, Yemen and Syria, where the so-called Arab Spring is in danger of being morphed into a dark winter.

MARTIN: Rami, tell us more, if you would, about what you hope the president will say. And, you know, there's a saying, where you stand depends on where you sit. That the expectations that people will have for the speech, in part, depend on their own circumstances. But can I ask you, what are you hoping the president will say?

KHOURI: Well, I agree with everything Hisham said. And I would add that what I would personally want, and I think many people in the region want is to go beyond speeches because the speeches are articulate expression of certain American principles, but the policy that the U.S. implements on the ground tends to be less impressive.

And it's a very important moment for the United States because while the Arabs are - many Arabs are challenging their regimes and trying to set up more democratic and responsive and humane government systems, the U.S. finds itself in a very peculiar position of having very, very little clout in the region, not just among Arabs, but among Israelis, among Turks and among Iranians. The four major players in the Middle East have all pushed back against the United States.

And the U.S. has created for itself a position of marginalization, where the U.S. finds itself with very, very little diplomatic impact. The latest example being the Palestinians essentially giving up on the U.S. and going to the U.N. general assembly and reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and the Saudis now taking a more dynamic policy, which, again, is based on some mistrust with the U.S. Egyptians charting a new course.

So the U.S. has a huge credibility problem that it has to address. But most of all, we want the U.S. to come out very firmly and very clearly and unequivocally to say that it supports all freedom loving people who strive peacefully for their rights and opposes governments and groups that deny freedom and democracy. The hesitancy of the U.S. on the Arab Spring is still visible and it bothers a lot of people.

MARTIN: Rami, in fact, you wrote about this in a recent piece that was just published yesterday. You said that Washington's attitude to the Arab Spring reflects a wider problem across much of the Western world that I personally experienced daily in my sort of discussions with journalists, officials, diplomats, and researchers. It's the same old and ugly problem of double standards in many Western governments' treatment of Arab issues.

And that you say, well, of course it's a much longer piece, but you say the problem is simply that the epic Arab struggle for liberty, rights and dignity is perceived by many abroad as a television drama that's captivating and thrilling, but that remains peculiarly detached from the world of Western powers and beyond the realm of people and so forth.

But, Rami, I have to press the question of, does the president of the United States have a right to be concerned about American interests and if those American interests sometimes conflict, what is he to do?

KHOURI: I think what he is to do is to understand that American interests are best served by implementing American values. And that the vast overwhelming majority of people in the Arab world and the region share the desire to experience democratic values, which are not only American, they're universal. So that American interests are best served by being on the side of the 350 million Arabs, most of whom are actively seeking democratic transitions in the region.

There are some conservative countries that prefer the status quo. What's happening in Bahrain is a sign of that, the Syrian government, others. But the overwhelming majority of the 350 million Arabs want to transition to democracy. The U.S. should be with them and that is a tremendous coalition. If you have the U.S. and the Western world and Arab public opinion working together, that is the absolute strongest guarantor of mutual self-interest, not just U.S. interest.

U.S. interest cannot be the driving force of policy in the Middle East. It has to be the interest of the people of the region and that includes Israelis and Iranians and Turks, as well as Arabs. So there's a huge opportunity here. I think Obama would make a massive mistake, by the way, to link this to the death of Osama bin Laden. I hope he doesn't mention Osama bin Laden.

MARTIN: Really?

KHOURI: Yeah.

MARTIN: He should mention it.

KHOURI: He should not mention it. He should make a separate speech to the American people about bin Laden and say whatever he wants, but he should not link Arab rights to bin Laden. He should not link Arab rights to the concerns of Israelis. And he should not link Arab rights to the concerns of possible Islamist movements and Iranian influence and all this stuff.

This is what I'm saying. We have to have an unequivocal American embrace of the indivisible right of liberty of all people in the Arab world with the same magnitude that the U.S. embraced, for instance, the Soviet dissidence in the '80s and '90s. Unequivocally with no exceptions say these people deserve freedom because they're human beings, and they're human beings who have the same rights as the people of Burma and the people of Bosnia and everywhere else. And that's what we're looking for.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of the Daily Star in Beirut. And Hisham Melhem who's the Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya, which is a satellite channel based in Dubai. We're talking about what the Arab world can expect from the president, or is hoping for from the president's address later this week. He's expected to give a major address on U.S. and relations with the Arab world. At least that's what we're calling it.

So President Obama's speech signaled a turning point in U.S. policy to the Arab world, or I don't know, did it? Hisham, let me ask you this, because I want to play a clip of this speech. I'll just play a short clip and I'll ask you, was it in fact a turning point? Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BARACK OBAMA: Americans are ready to join with citizens and governments, community organizations, religious leaders and businesses in Muslim communities around the world to help our people pursue a better life.

MARTIN: What about that? Rami is saying that he feels that this administration has lost substantial credibility in parts of the world because there is a feeling that it's all talk and no walk. Do you share that assessment?

MELHEM: Well, I mean, there is a genuine and I think well understood sense of frustration throughout the region. But essentially what we see in the Arab world is an Arab drama. This drama should be acted and produced and determined by Arab actors. The United States and the rest of the world have a role to help. One would expect that the United States will be faithful to its own values. And I think the American president is likely to stress these values, obviously.

Look, it's always difficult, I mean, this is the perennial question in foreign policy - how do you balance the imperatives of bilateral relationship? How do you balance the imperatives of your national security interests with your values? And it's never easy. It's easy for us as writers and reporters to complain and say, he should do that, he should do this. But at the same time, there is a lot to be said about American values. And if the United States is going to be on the side of history - on the right side of history with the Arab movement for change, it has to state so clearly and bluntly and consistently. And without any double standards, so to speak.

With who - if we support the rights of the Tunisians and the Egyptians for democracy and better life and future and empowerment, we should do so in Libya and Syria and Bahrain and in Yemen. So at times the United States, you know, acted as if Bahrain is somewhat different, maybe even Syria is somewhat different. We are using military force against Gadhafi.

Now, obviously there is an exaggeration on the Arab side that the Americans can everything they want. That America is omniscient and omnipresent. And there's a great deal of that Arab attitude, which I don't like at all. That you dump everything, all our failures and impotence on the Americans or on the Israelis. And there is that tradition, unfortunately, in the Arab world.

I think the United States can help a lot, but the United States cannot determine the future in Syria and Yemen and in Libya. This is an Arab drama. And I think the United States can be consistent and standing for the principles of liberty, accountability, non-violence, empowerment. And I think the president, on the Arab-Israeli conflict, can do more beyond talking.

This country supports Israel. This country could tell the Israelis, look, if the Palestinians are going to go to the United Nations in September and seek a status of a state, well, if you don't move on the peace process, we're not going to object to that. And I think he should be blunt to the Israelis just as he is blunt and should be blunt, also, with Arab rulers when it comes to issues of democracy and empowerment.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. But obviously to be continued. We thank both of you for your insights today as we have when we called upon you in the past. We appreciate it. Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief for the television news network Al-Arabiya, which is based in Dubai. He was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios.

Rami Khouri is the editor-at-large of the Daily Star in Beirut. We caught up with him on his visit to Washington, D.C. And we caught him at the studios of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace also here in Washington. Gentlemen, thank you both so much.

KHOURI: Thank you.

MELHEM: Thank you.

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