Obama To Address Arab Uprisings

President Obama plans to outline steps to boost the economies of Egypt and Tunisia, when he delivers a major policy address on the Middle East and North Africa Thursday. The White House says economic improvements would help to reinforce the positive political changes sweeping the region.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Im Renee Montagne.

Two years ago in Cairo, President Obama made a famous address to the Muslim world. So much has happened since then, especially in Cairo, which was the scene of a dramatic revolution.

INSKEEP: Now the president will address Arabs and other Muslims again, seeking to redefine relations with people who remain deeply skeptical of the United States. The speech gives Mr. Obama a chance to give some rhetorical backing for the political changes known as the Arab Spring.

MONTAGNE: He's also expected to offer concrete support, economic aid to help Egypt and Tunisia.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Administration officials say fostering economic opportunity is one of the best ways to nurture the Middle East's newborn democratic movements. After a meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah, this week, Mr. Obama said the demonstrators in Egypt and Tunisia don't just want more say in their governments. They also want jobs and hope.

President BARACK OBAMA: So much of what's taking place has to do with the aspirations of young people throughout the Arab world, for their ability to determine their own fate, to get an education, to get a job, to be able to support a family. And that means some of the old structures that were inhibiting their ability to progress have to be reworked.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama will say the U.S. and other countries can support that effort through debt forgiveness, better economic management and expanded trade.

White House spokesman Jay Carney says today's speech is also a chance for the president to step back and take stock of the dramatic changes in the Middle East, that the world has witnessed over the last five months.

Mr. JAY CARNEY (Press secretary, White House): I don't think anybody in this room has seen anything like it in their adult lifetimes. And it presents a unique opportunity for the United States and our allies to embrace and support the kind of change that will improve the lives of the people of that region and improve the security of the United States of America.

HORSLEY: But Carney acknowledged that change can be unsettling, even frightening.

The administration's response to events in the region has seemed tentative and inconsistent at times. In Libya, for example, the president has backed NATO military action and called for Moammar Gadhafi to step down. But he hasn't gone that far against Syria's President, although the U.S. did impose new sanctions against Syria yesterday.

Robert Satloff, who runs the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says, in trying to describe an overall approach to the region, Mr. Obama has his work cut out for him.

Dr. ROBERT SATLOFF (Executive Director, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy): There are some places where we have been quite supportive of the will of the people, and other places where we've had a more checkered approach. You know, inconsistencies go with being a great power, but they don't make for easy rhetoric.

HORSLEY: Still, aides see an opportunity for the United States to turn the page in the Middle East, with the Iraq War now winding down and Osama bin Laden dead.

The al-Qaida leader's death earlier this month marked a significant victory for President Obama. But the top-secret raid, carried out by U.S. forces, acting alone, is also a departure for the president, who ordinarily prefers to work cooperatively with other countries.

Throughout the Arab Spring, Mr. Obama has taken pains not to appear so heavy-handed. Spokesman Carney says that's partly to avoid giving the impression that home-grown democracy activists are puppets of the United States.

Mr. CARNEY: The president has made clear that we cannot dictate outcomes and -nor should we.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama will also touch on the Israel-Palestinian question today. Efforts to revive peace talks have been stalled for months, and the president's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, is quitting. His last day is tomorrow.

Still, Mr. Obama says his commitment to the peace process has not waned.

President OBAMA: Despite the many changes, or perhaps because of the many changes that are taking place in the region, it's more vital than ever that both Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table and begin negotiating.

HORSLEY: But the White House says Israel and the Palestinians won't be the major focus of today's speech. Aides note that autocratic leaders in the Middle East sometimes use Israel as a distraction to avoid dealing with their own problems. Mr. Obama doesn't want to distract from the larger changes brought by the Arab Spring.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

MONTAGNE: And you can go to our website, NPR.org, to hear the president's speech live. After the speech, we'll have a follow-up interview on our website with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. Send in your questions for him on Twitter.

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