Live-Blogging Cairo II

May 19 2011 @ 11:56am

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1.20 pm. A small indication of what will come from the far right. Obama's mere reference to the 1967 borders prompts Drudge's headline: Obama Sides With Palestine. If we acknowledge that the 1967 borders have long been the template for US policy – with mutually agreed land-swaps – then every president in memory has been siding with Palestine. As every American president should.

1 pm. What to say? It strikes me as a classic example of Obama's community organizer past, except the community he is now attempting to organize is the maelstrom of passions and pathologies that define the Middle East. He pledges American support for democratic principles, while still not cutting off outreach to the murderous Assad. He proposes an interim negotiating structure for the Israelis and Palestinians, while not rejecting the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation in advance. He offers debt forgiveness and investment in Egypt and Tunisia, while recognizing there is no fiscal capacity for a new Marshall Plan. He seems to capture the classic Obama tendency to see all sides, in a reflection of his unique Third Culture Kid capacity. And if he is leading, it is from behind, with an almost pathological pragmatism, combined with these periodic oratorical framing devices.

It is very hard to see how this will unfold and whether it is a rubric within which the long-despotic region can be fully understood. In a way, he is trying to do with the whole Middle East what he hoped to do with Israel: hold a mirror up to it and persist in requesting that it recognize pragmatic reality rather than ideological or religious perfection.

At home, this attempt at unifying, see-both-sides pragmatism has been greeted by the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, Roger Ailes, Paul Ryan and the ever-marching brigades of the far right. Tactically it has failed. But strategically, it may well be working – as the country observes how far the GOP has migrated to the ideological far right, and swings back toward a president who looks much more likely to be re-elected today than he did six months ago.

It is this pragmatic persistence that is the hallmark of a president who was once an inspirational candidate. And such persistence requires a long view and two terms. But given the alternative – a US foreign policy devoted to exacerbating the religious divide globally, enabling Israel's suicide, making no distinctions within the Islamic world – we already know it must be our primary hope.

And there is a distinction between hope and optimism. There always has been. But there is no region in the world more immune to the distinction than the Middle East. It is Obama's acid test.

12.57 pm. The attempt to identify the current revolutions in the Middle East with America's own experience:

For the American people, the scenes of upheaval in the region may be unsettling, but the forces driving it are not unfamiliar. Our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire. Our people fought a painful civil war that extended freedom and dignity to those who were enslaved. And I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of non-violence as a way to perfect our union – organizing, marching, and protesting peacefully together to make real those words that declared our nation: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”

12.53 pm. He seems to be arguing that the status of Jerusalem and the right of return should be punted for now in favor of agreements on territory and security. Hamas is not completely shut out for now. But the Palestinians have to provide "credible" answers to "legitimate" Israel fears about the newly unified Palestinian leadership.

12.51 pm. Again the bleeding obvious:

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

But he has already enunciated a clear opposition of the Abbas attempt to get the UN to declare Palestinian statehood. All of which is sane – even if the region is basically insane on this question.

12.48 pm. The audacity of hope:

There are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward. I disagree.  At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever.

12.44 pm. "If you take out oil exports, this region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland." Ouch. But the forgiveness of Egypt's debt matters a lot. I see much to be gained by focusing almost exclusively on protecting the democratic revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, Egypt especially.

12.38 pm. Now a defense of the right of Islamists to make their case in the public square – as long as they do not seek to oppress the right of free speech to others. This is one thing that we never heard from George W. Bush. It is important to me for the US to accept that many in the Muslim world are geniunely attracted to the deadly illusions of fundamentalist government. The best response to this is to vent it, not repress it. That's a big risk, of course, especially given the openly anti-democratic theologies behind the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, et al. But it's an expression of self-confidence n American ideals, rather than a fear of the Other.

12.35 pm. At last! Some public condemnation of the Bahrainian repression. But again: measured.

12.31 pm. He makes a defense of the Libyan intervention as the corner stone of the American principle of siding with the street vendor against the dictator. To Assad: "he can lead that revolution or get out of the way." But Obama is still not shutting Assad off – while denouncing the hypocrisy of Iran's coup leaders. And this is important: to cite the Green Revolution as the first moment of the democratic revolution in the Middle East. I wish he had done this at the very start. Before Tunisia, there was Iran.

12.26 pm. The "world as it is" vs the "world as it should be". A little RFKish.

12.19 pm. Personalizing the revolution – and recapturing the moral nonviolent inspiration that sparked the revolution – strikes me as an essential context. So too the simple reality that change is fitful and unknowable – while the arc of history moves inexorably toward more openness, democracy and free communication.

12.17 pm. First up: distinguishing al Qaeda's vision from the Arab Spring, something Osama tried to erase in his final video. From OBL's murderous fundamentalism to the legacy of Mohamed Bouazizi.

12.12 pm. It's worth pausing for a moment to observe the seamless unity between Obama and Clinton. This is, in many ways, one of the most remarkable achievements of the president. Most presidents are lucky to neutralize the primary foes; this one coopted his after one of the most brutal and long primary campaigns in memory.

12.10 pm. An interesting take on the real-world constraints on American foreign policy: Jewish donors threatening not to donate if the president actually pressures Israel on a two-state solution.

(Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty.)