Missing Tunisia’s Wave

On Jan. 25, President Obama delivered a State of the Union speech that sidestepped America’s toughest foreign policy problems and tepidly acknowledged Tunisia’s unrest. By Feb. 2, Tunisia’s wave of political upheaval washed over Egypt, Jordan and Yemen. A moment was missed.

The White House should ask for a do-over to address not just the nation, but also the world. It’s time for President Obama to take a crack at a televised primetime address acknowledging the historic change underway in the Middle East.

For a region that has wholly captured our country during the last decade, it is a singular opportunity for President Obama to re-frame America’s strategy, and hopes, for the Middle East. It is a rare chance to prove to a skeptical region that our country has righted its course there.

In President Obama’s well-received Cairo speech of 2009, he called for a “new beginning” in relations between Muslims and the U.S.  It is the perfect moment to appeal for a “new, new beginning” in U.S. relationships with the Middle East’s people and their leaders.

The ebbing U.S. occupation of Iraq underscores the moment’s importance to American foreign policy and our deliberate military disengagement.

U.S. priorities in the Middle East are too easily distilled down to the invasion of Iraq, containing Iran, supporting Israel and arming Arab allies. There is little discussion of why this all still makes sense.

If President Obama does not rise to meet the events of the past month, others will establish the narrative of this period, essentially picking up where he left off in Cairo. That may be the Muslim Brotherhood. Or Iran’s leadership may use its many voices.

At its best, such a presidential address can frame U.S. interests in the kind of aspirational language that promotes political freedom and checks tyranny. That was part of President Obama’s intent in Cairo in 2009. A televised address this week, delivered from the United Nations, would reinforce the seriousness of this message.

The track record of U.S. presidents being undone by events in the Middle East will continue unimproved if President Obama fails to be audacious. Failure to make a grand statement presents a considerable risk to his legacy. Another peril is the belief that his engagement in the tactical-minded politics of the region represent progress in U.S.-Middle East relations.

For the region’s authoritarians, for the hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating in Mideast squares for the first time, and for President Obama, the clock is running.

After all, look how much can change in just a week.