Obama supports Middle East protesters in speech

Friday, May 20, 2011

File photograph of Barack Obama.
Strategies of repression and diversion won’t work anymore.

Barack Obama

U.S. president Barack Obama has put the support of his administration behind protesters demanding democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, demanded Syrian president Bashar al-Assad embrace reforms or resign, and warned a failure to address the uprisings in the region could lead to deep division between the U.S. and Muslim nations.

In a speech in Washington, D.C., Obama said it was a "historic opportunity" for his government to "promote reform, and to support transitions to democracy" in the region. Warning of "a deepening spiral of division between the United States and Muslim communities," he pledged to invest in a democratic future for Tunisia and Egypt, where protesters have overthrown dictators in the past few months. "Strategies of repression and diversion won’t work anymore," he said, announcing a "new chapter" in Washington diplomacy.

He also criticized the government of Bahrain for attacking peaceful protesters and conducting mass arrests. A crackdown on protesters, he said, "will not make legitimate calls for reform go away." Obama defended his decision to launch military action in Libya, saying "thousands would have been killed," and accused Muammar Gaddafi of launching "a war against his people, promising to hunt them down like rats." Gaddafi, he said, will "inevitably" leave or be forced from power.

After imposing sanctions on Syria this week as military forces in the country clamp down on demonstrators in the capital, Damascus, Obama again condemned violence against peaceful protesters. He demanded the administration of president Assad stop shooting protesters and allow peaceful demonstrations, release political prisoners, and pass democratic reforms. "The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy," he said. Assad, he added, could either lead the transition or "get out of the way."

Speaking at the U.S. State Department, Obama said he would react to the uprising in the region "in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security." He pledged to broaden the approach of his government beyond counterterrorism and ceasing the spread of nuclear weapons, to crack down on oppressive dictatorships which would harm U.S. interests. Unveiling a series of new economic initiatives intended to force out dictators, Obama pledged aid for Tunisia and Egypt to help them transform into democratic states.

The speech is being seen by analysts as an attempt by Obama to reach out to Muslim communities abroad amid U.S. unpopularity. The president is also trying to convince his U.S. audience that the outcome of the Arab Spring will have an impact on the future of the U.S. and is worth spending money on during tumultuous economic times in Washington. File:Syria Damascus Douma Protests 2011 - 22.jpg

Protesters in Damascus, Syria, demanding democratic reform.
Image: syriana2011.
(Image missing from Commons: image; log)

The push for democracy began in January, as protesters in Tunisia overthrew president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January. A month later, Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign from the Egyptian presidency. In Libya, demonstrators continue to try to topple Gaddafi, but have faced heavy bombardment from government forces.

Obama also signaled that al-Qaeda is "losing its struggle for relevance" amid the uprising in the region, and said Osama bin Laden was rapidly losing followers before his death earlier this month. As the uprising spread, the agenda of the terrorist organization responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001, was at a "dead end," he said. "Through the moral force of nonviolence, the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades."

He called on Israel and Palestine to begin talks based on the 1967 borders as the conflict stalls. "No peace can be imposed upon them, nor can endless delay make the problem go away," Obama said. "A lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples." But Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu tonight rejected the suggestion because it would endanger Israeli security.