Obama Middle East Speech Will Redefine U.S. Policy After Bin Laden

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is expected to lay out a new vision for American relations with the Middle East later this week in his first extended remarks on the region since the Arab Spring uprisings and the killing of Osama bin Laden, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday.

The Thursday address at the State Department will be "an opportunity to sort of step back and assess what we’ve all witnessed, the historic change we’ve seen, and to talk about how he views it," Carney said. He added it is a chance to explain the values and principles that will inform the administration's policies and its support for pro-democracy movements in the region.

A senior State Department official familiar with the contents of a draft of the speech said Obama would focus on political and economic reform in the region. Security issues, including Iran's nuclear ambitions and its support of Islamist groups like Hezbollah, will also be touched upon, although it is not expected to be the centerpiece of the address.

"The United States realizes it needs to change the way it does business in the region," said the official, who was not authorized to speak for attribution. The source noted that while the demise of Osama bin Laden has dominated the headlines, Obama will make clear it is time to move on and focus on the future of the region.

Obama is expected to speak for about 45 minutes, a long time by White House standards and a signal of the importance administration officials place on America's relationship to a strategically vital region undergoing revolutionary upheaval not seen since the end of the Cold War.

"This is a speech that has been a long time in coming," the official said, noting that aides to the president began contemplating laying out a new framework soon after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down. But a cascade of events had pushed the speech off until now. The bin Laden killing opened a window of opportunity despite continued uncertainty about the outcome in Libya, Syria and elsewhere.

For Obama, the speech is a chance to pull together what has at times seemed an inconsistent response to the uprisings. From a slow acceptance that Mubarak's days were numbered to the call for NATO military actions to protect rebels in Libya to mere statements of disapproval for the sectarian crackdown in Bahrain to new sanctions on Syria, the White House has struggled to calibrate its policy.

The president "will address concerns that we responded in one country in one way and in another a different way," the State Department official said. "He'll explain that while there are universal standards and rights that the United States seeks to uphold, we're aware that the political conditions are different in different countries."

Americans will "hear a lot about Syria" in the speech, the official said. Details are still being hammered out as aides seek to learn more about the regime's suspected role in fomenting clashes between Palestinian refugees and Israeli forces along its border this weekend.

Obama is expected to outline a series of economic steps aimed at helping the fledgling democracies in the region, especially Egypt. The president will note $150 million in previously announced aid to Egypt as well as about $1 billion in debt relief.

After a meeting at the White House with Jordan's King Abdullah Tuesday, Obama announced an economic aid package that includes sending 50,000 metric tons of wheat to the desert nation where the government took steps toward reform as uprisings broke out around the region.

Obama will touch on the moribund peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority but isn't expected to announce any new initiative ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit later this week. The resignation of Mideast envoy George Mitchell last week and a Palestinian unity deal that includes Hamas has lowered expectations for renewed peace initiatives.

Obama will outline "a single standard" to apply to Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties that seek to engage with the United States, the official said.

"He will say we are happy to engage with any group that renounces violence as a tool for political change," the official said. The key factor will be whether a group can work in a "more concerted and constructive way" that commits it to the ideals of equal rights for women and minorities, pluralism and tolerance.

Thursday's speech comes as a new Pew Research Center report on global attitudes found Obama remains unpopular in the Muslim world despite his efforts to rehabilitate an often testy relationship during the George W. Bush years.

Pew found "many of the concerns that have driven animosity toward the United States in recent years are still present: a perception that the U.S. acts unilaterally, opposition to the war on terror and fears of America as a military threat."