"The State Department is a fitting venue," declared Barack Obama at the beginning of his speech on the Middle East last Thursday.
That's curious because in three-quarters of his speech Obama repudiated most of what has been traditional State Department Middle East policy. Only in the last page and a half of a six-page text, when he discussed the Israeli-Palestinian issue, did he revert to State Department mode.
Not once did Obama mention the name of George W. Bush, but much of his speech sounded like it came from his predecessor.
"Too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people's grievances elsewhere," Obama said, blaming the West "as the source of all ills, a half-century after the end of colonialism." Bush said almost exactly the same thing.
"It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region," Obama said, "and to support transitions to democracy." Sure sounds like W.
Obama came to office with quite a different view. He wanted to skedaddle from Iraq and engage with "the Islamic Republic of Iran." Ousting tyrants seemed the last thing on his mind.
But events -- the mullahs' rejection of his overtures, the "Arab Spring" uprisings -- have apparently convinced him that history is moving in the direction that Bush perceived and encouraged.
In June 2009, Obama scornfully ignored Iranian protesters. But now "we still hear the chants echo from the rooftops of Iran" and remember "the image of a young woman dying in the streets."
Obama used to portray the Iraq War as folly and predicted that Bush's surge would fail. Now he felt obliged to salute "the promise of a multiethnic, multisectarian democracy" in Iraq.
True, Bush did not pursue democracy in the Middle East with perfect consistency, and Obama didn't propose to do so either. Sometimes it must be subordinated to other interests. "Universal rights apply to women as well as men," Obama said. But he did not mention Saudi Arabia, where women's rights are, er, not fully respected.
Obama denounced Moammar Gadhafi's strategy to "keep power by killing as many people as he likes" and said Gadhafi would "inevitably" be forced out in Libya.
But while Obama noted that "the Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder," he held out hope that Bashir al-Assad would lead "a transition to democracy" or "get out of the way."
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