Obama Lays Out Vision For Middle East

President Obama declared Thursday that the United States will promote democratic reform across the Middle East, challenging not only adversaries like Syria but also allies like Bahrain. In a speech at the State Department, Obama offered his first comprehensive response to the political uprisings that have gripped the region over the last six months. He also called for Israel and the Palestinians to resume negotiations over the shape of a two-state solution.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

And we begin this hour with President Obama's first comprehensive response to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. In a speech at the State Department, the president declared the U.S. will promote democratic reform. He challenged not only adversaries such as Syria, but also allies like Bahrain. He also called for Israel and the Palestinians to resume negotiations.

In a few minutes, we'll talk with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. First, NPR's Scott Horsley tells us more about today's speech.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama began with the observation that peaceful protesters have brought more change to the Middle East in the last six months than violent extremists have delivered in decades.

The pace of change has been unsettling at times, but not unfamiliar. Mr. Obama likened the demonstrators standing up to power in Egypt and Tunisia to civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks and the patriots behind the Boston Tea Party.

President BARACK OBAMA: There are times in the course of history when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has been building up for years.

HORSLEY: The president said Americans should approach these revolutions with a sense of humility because the citizens of the Middle East will determine their own fate. But Mr. Obama said the U.S. will support those working for democracy and self-determination, even if that sometimes means looking beyond our own narrow interests like security or protecting the flow of oil.

President OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: Experts say the challenge of the administration will be matching that lofty rhetoric with tangible action. Jon Alterman, who directed the Middle East program at the Center For Strategic and International Studies, says U.S. presidents have long paid lip service to the need for greater freedom and democracy in the Middle East, only to find themselves frustrated by the sclerotic governments in the region.

Mr. JON ALTERMAN (Center For Strategic and International Studies): What we have is we have a different set of opportunities. As the Middle East is in a case of greater flux, there are opportunities for larger steps than we've seen up to now. And the question is whether the U.S. can play a constructive role helping these societies take steps that in many ways the U.S. has wanted them to take for quite some time.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama says one way to support the region's fledgling democracies is with economic aid. The U.S. is pledging several billion dollars in debt relief, loan guarantees and other assistance, in hopes of fostering more economic opportunity.

While change has come to Egypt and Tunisia, other parts of the Middle East are as autocratic as ever. Mr. Obama offered his toughest challenge yet to Syria's ruler, one day after the administration slapped new sanctions on President Bashar Assad.

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.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama said the U.S. must be equally frank with its allies in the region and he called for concessions by the rulers of Yemen and Bahrain. The president also challenged America's closest Middle East ally, Israel, to make possible a resumption of talks with the Palestinians over the boundaries and security arrangements of a future Palestinian state.

President OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama said the borders should be based on Israel's territory before the 1967 occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, along with mutually agreed upon land swaps. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who's set to meet with the president tomorrow, quickly called the idea indefensible.

Mr. Obama acknowledged that achieving a two-state solution will be difficult. He added the Palestinians will have to overcome the distrust sparked by Fatah's new partnership with the militant group Hamas. But Mr. Obama says he's convinced majorities on both sides would rather look forward then stay trapped in the past.

President OBAMA: That is the choice that must be made, not simply in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but across the entire region. A choice between hate and hope, between the shackles of the past and the promise of the future.

HORSLEY: There's no straight line to progress, Mr. Obama concluded, but the United States will stand squarely with those who are reaching for their rights.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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