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Obama administration in full court press ahead of Middle East speech

Obama administration in full court press ahead of Middle East speech

The Obama administration has been furiously advancing its regional diplomatic efforts on a wide range of issues in the run-up to the Middle East speech that President Barack Obama will deliver at the State Department on Thursday.

Top administration officials have been meeting with Arab leaders, preparing new announcements on aid to the region, finalizing sanctions on bad actors, and closely coordinating the president’s message in the last few days. Obama’s mission is a tough one — to clarify a consistent U.S. approach to the region despite his administration’s varied responses to the uprisings that have occurred throughout the region this year. And there’s a lot on his plate.

"Specifically, a successful speech will need to align America with the most positive aspects of Arab rebellions against autocracy; reflect a balance between the hope and fear triggered in equal parts by seismic political change; signal American support for a process of democratic choice without suggesting indifference to the outcome of free and fair elections; project both disapproval and understanding — but not endorsement — toward those U.S. friends, especially in the Gulf, who refuse reform and repress its advocates; and explain why the maniacal dictator in Libya merits NATO bombing while the capo di tutti capi in Damascus does not even merit specific personal opprobrium for his outrageous behavior," said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The administration ratcheted up its response to Damascus today, announcing that the United States will expand sanctions to include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and six senior Syrian officials for human rights abuses over their brutal crackdown on anti-government protests. The administration sanctioned some Syrian officials last month, but this is the first time Assad himself is the target of such measures.

On Monday, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Washington in a potential preview of the speech’s message on Middle East peace. "We both share the view that despite the many changes, or perhaps because of the many changes, it’s more vital than ever that the Israelis and Palestinians find a way to get back to the table," Obama said after the meeting.

The speech is not expected to delve into the details of any plan to resume negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, a process that ended formally with the resignation of Special Envoy George Mitchell, but the administration has also been in close contact with the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to coordinate messaging. Netanyahu will meet with Obama on Friday in Washington, and will also deliver a speech to Congress on May 24.

Meanwhile, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg is in Israel and the West Bank today, meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Steinberg will participate in the U.S.-Israel Strategic Dialogue on Thursday, which will firm up progress on U.S.-Israel security cooperation.

Steinberg was in Bahrain on Tuesday, along with Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman, reinforcing the explicitly different tone the administration has taken with that regime, which is also implicated in human rights abuses against protesters.

"During his meetings, Deputy Secretary Steinberg affirmed the long-standing commitment of the U.S. to a strong partnership with both the people and the Government of Bahrain and stressed the importance of full respect for universal human rights," the State Department said in a read out. "He urged all parties to pursue a path of reconciliation and comprehensive political dialogue."

Meanwhile, White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan has been busily firming up the administration’s stance on Yemen, where protesters have been pressing the government to fulfill promises of a leadership change. Brennan called President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Wednesday to urge him to implement the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered agreement, which would see Saleh step down from power.

"Brennan noted that this transfer of power represents the best path forward for Yemen to become a more secure, unified, and prosperous nation and for the Yemeni people to realize their aspirations for peace and political reform," the White House said in a statement about the call.

What about Egypt and Tunisia? The State Department has been working to finalize a new aid package for Middle East countries transitioning to democracy, the Wall Street Journal reported today, just in time for Thursday’s speech.

On Libya, Obama is expected to claim limited success in the mission to protect civilians, pledge additional support for the Transitional National Council, and repeat calls for Col. Muammar al Qaddafi to step down.

Obama is also planning a series of events following the speech to drive home his message. On May 20, he will go to CIA headquarters to thank the agency for its work in the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. On May 22, he’ll address the AIPAC conference in Washington.

The relationship between the Arab Spring and the drive for Middle East peace is one area of the speech lawmakers are listening for closely. Does the president think the wave of democratic revolutions across the region make the peace process easier or harder?

"I think in some ways it makes it harder and in some ways it makes it easier," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) told The Cable. "The thrust of the Arab Spring is democratic and not really religious so that makes it easier. But it’s also harder because when you have a population in a state of upset it’s kind of hard to lead to that population."