Obama Sees Arab Spring As Moment Of Opportunity

Guest

Ari Shapiro, White House correspondent, NPR

President Obama laid out his vision for U.S. policy in the Middle East, offering economic aid to Tunisia and Egypt and coming down hard on Syria's government. It was the president's first major speech on Middle East policy since the Arab Spring uprisings and the killing of Osama bin Laden.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Jennifer Ludden in Washington.

A bit later, we'll talk about parents, kids and money. How did you learn to handle money, and what are you passing on to your children?

But we begin with President Obama's speech on the Middle East, a 40-minute address that wrapped up just an hour ago. It marked his first major address since the killing of Osama bin Laden and the start of the Arab Spring.

He covered a lot of ground, from Tunisia to Egypt, Israel to Iran. He likened the uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa to America's own struggles for civil rights and to end slavery.

The president has faced criticism that he hasn't delivered a consistent message to the dictators and people of the Middle East. Today, he aimed to lay out a clear vision of U.S. values and policies in the region.

President BARACK OBAMA: There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity. Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise. But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.

Of course, as we do, we must proceed with a sense of humility. It's not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo: It was the people themselves who launched these movements, and it's the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome.

LUDDEN: That was President Obama, speaking about an hour ago at the State Department. NPR's White House correspondent Ari Shapiro is here with us in Studio 3A. Hi, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO: Hi, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: So the president wasted no time in getting to both the opportunities and the many apparent challenges that this Arab spring has presented the United States. He talked about how sometimes short-term interests don't align with long-term goals. What was he referring to.

SHAPIRO: That cut of tape that we just heard really captures it, where he says on the one hand, American leadership is vital, American leadership is more important than ever.

And in the same breath, he says American cannot determine how this will turn out: This is in the hands of the people. And the people in different countries may reach different outcomes.

His overarching message seemed to be there are certain values that America will stand behind when the people of these countries fight for those values.

LUDDEN: Right, he talked about core principles, and he evoked our own founding documents. What did he...?

SHAPIRO: He talked about Rosa Parks. He talked about the Boston Tea Party. He quoted the U.S. founding documents, you know, all men are created equal. And he said that where people are fighting for those interests and those values -freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, women's rights -the U.S. will be standing there with them.

LUDDEN: Now, he did, specifically, though, move on to there are so many countries involved, and...

SHAPIRO: Yeah, and he almost went line by line, country by country, talking about the different issues and the different challenges facing each country.

And, you know, the U.S. response has been very different in each country.

LUDDEN: Which he's been criticized for in some ways. We've got NATO and U.S. planes targeting Libya...

SHAPIRO: Libya and not so much in Syria.

LUDDEN: Right, now he did call out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for large numbers of killings of demonstrators over the recent weeks, the last few months. Let's listen to President Obama saying that Assad has a choice.

President OBAMA: The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition or get out of the way.

The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests. It must release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests. It must allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Dara'a and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition. Otherwise, President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and will continue to be isolated abroad.

SHAPIRO: You know, one of the questions that reporters kept asking White House officials in the buildup to this speech was: Will President Obama call for Assad to step down?

These were his harshest words yet for the Syrian leader, but he doesn't say it's time for you to lead. He says lead the transition or get out of the way. And then he set a whole series, that we just heard, of benchmarks that Assad has to meet in order to have the support of the United States, which I don't think anybody at this point actually supports - actually believes he's going to do.

But the economic sanctions that we saw the U.S. and the international community impose against Syria yesterday, and those sort of benchmarks that President Obama laid out today strike me as sort of steps along the path to saying you are no longer a legitimate leader, it's time for you to go, much as President Obama said about Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi, not president but the Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

The difference is the U.S. has a lot of strategic interests in Syria that it did not necessarily have in Libya.

LUDDEN: Now, the sanctions against Syria, the new - they are new, and they specifically name President Bashar al-Assad. You know, do we have any indication that they will force any change? And is anyone else signing on to them?

SHAPIRO: The international community is coming along with this process. And, you know, will they force any change? Sanctions are one pressure point. They're not the only pressure point. I haven't heard anyone speculate that because of these sanctions alone, the Syrian president will leave or turn around his policies. But the sanctions are one pressure point.

And they're part of a whole economic paradigm, a whole economic framework that the White House sort of rolled out yesterday, a system of carrots and sticks, carrots for those countries that are taking a path that the U.S. supports, sticks like economic sanctions for those countries such as Syria that are doing things the U.S. does not support.

LUDDEN: He talked about how the economic aid can further political reform. Tell us what he laid out.

SHAPIRO: Well, you know, everybody perceives the Arab spring as a series of uprisings against political oppression. But President Obama said today that these are also about economic oppression.

He used a statistic that if you take out oil exports, the entire export market of the whole Mid-East and North Africa region equals the exports of Switzerland alone.

And he had this compelling quote. He said: no development strategy can be based wholly on what comes out of the ground. His message was: In order for these protests to fully be realized, these countries have to brought into the economic present day, and that requires getting rid of corruption and patronage and bribes, creating an environment where entrepreneurs can innovate and create new products that can find a market in the export community and the international community.

And he laid out specific things that the U.S., the IMF, the World Bank and other countries are going to do to try to make that possible: a billion dollars in debt forgiveness for Egypt, for example; a billion dollars in guaranteed loans for Egypt.

And he said there will be new proposals laid out by the IMF and the World Bank at the G8 summit next week.

LUDDEN: And he specifically mentioned the young people and their need to get jobs, how you can be educated but still not land a decent job because of the corruption and problems within the system over there.

SHAPIRO: Right, and he talked about the fruit vendor in Tunisia whose self-immolation set off this whole chain of protests, who was protesting his inability to start even just a small fruit stall. And he said that kind of experience is too common throughout the Middle East, that people who have ideas, who have drive, who have potential, can't fully actualize all of that.

And he said it's no coincidence that one of the leaders in the revolution in Egypt was a Google executive. And he said people who have that kind of drive need to be able to exercise it.

LUDDEN: Right, he talked a lot about the technology and its impact and how so many of these protests have been organized on social networks. And he had a lot of strong words to say about freedom of speech and how technology is playing into this now. Let's take a listen.

President OBAMA: Across the region, we intend to provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned and who speak uncomfortable truths. And we will use the technology to connect with and listen to the voices of the people.

For the fact is, real reform does not come at the ballot box alone. Through our efforts, we must support those basic rights to speak your mind and access information.

We will support open access to the Internet and the right of journalists to be heard, whether it's a big news organization or a lone blogger. In the 21st century, information is power, the truth cannot be hidden, and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens.

LUDDEN: So interesting. He seems to be suggesting, you know, if the Muslim Brotherhood is going to put out their message, we have to live by it, and so do you in Egypt and other countries.

SHAPIRO: Well, you look at any contemporary democracy, and there's a lot of noisy dialogue that doesn't always follow the course that the party in power would like that dialogue to go.

I think President Obama is saying the same thing: If we want Egypt, if we want to Tunisia to be advanced democracies that, you know, the democracies of the Western world can see themselves reflected in, then we have to accept that there is going to be a lot of unpopular talk, and there's going to be a lot of journalism, bloggers, tweets, what have you that oppose what the U.S. would like.

And he's saying that's okay. You know, he began by talking about this new chapter in American diplomacy, and I got the sense from that passage, when he was talking about technology and social media, that this is not a new chapter in American diplomacy because America declares it to be so but rather because the innovations in technology demand that it be so.

LUDDEN: Now, the president saved the Israel and Palestine question for later in his speech, toward the end. Let's give a listen. He says that efforts by Palestine to de-legitimize Israel at the United Nations will be futile.

President OBAMA: Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.

As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums.

But precisely because of our friendship, it's important that we tell the truth: The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.

LUDDEN: Okay, the Israeli president comes here tomorrow, or prime minister. How is this going to go over?

SHAPIRO: Benjamin Netanyahu will be here, and on Sunday, President Obama addresses AIPAC, the Israeli lobby here in the United States, when we will hear, I'm sure, more specifics about what President Obama expects to see in a two-state solution.

But he really had to bring it up in this speech because it is so key to the credibility of the U.S. when it comes to behavior and activities in the Mid-East.

LUDDEN: All right, NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro, thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: And stay with NPR News. We'll have more on reaction to President Obama's speech on the Middle East. When we come back, another challenge: teaching kids about money. What are you teaching yours, and what did your parents teach you? Our number is 800-989-8255. Or email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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