President Barack Obama signaled a major change in U.S. policy in his speech on May 19 about the Arab Spring, articulating the primacy of American values over U.S. interests in the region. “It will be the policy of the United States,” he declared, “to promote reform across the region and support transitions to democracy.”
The speech was a good start, perhaps even the inauguration of a new age in diplomacy, equivalent to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 that ended Europe’s wars of religion or the post-Napoleonic arrangements of the Congress of Vienna in 1815. But much will depend on determined implementation of the clearest commitments made in the speech for aid to Egypt and Tunisia and the handling of later crises across North Africa and the Middle East.
For Christians in the Middle East, the president’s endorsement of religious freedom as one of the universal rights at the core of U.S. policy is welcome. As we have seen in Egypt, the turmoil of the transition to democracy can lead to anti-Christian activities by Muslim extremists. At the same time, as popular uprisings take place in Jordan and Syria, they create an uncertain future for Christians in two of the region’s countries where the regimes have been protective of their presence. In addition, both countries include large populations of Christian refugees, many of them unregistered, who can become the targets for extremists. Even promising transitions can be problematic, as Israel shows. Nearly 18 years ago the Holy See and the State of Israel signed an agreement aimed at stabilizing the church’s situation there, but most of that agreement remains unimplemented, adding to the stress endured by Christians and their institutions.
Of course, Christians will be best protected when both domestic and international peace returns to the region. The administration’s limited ability to deal with issues of religious liberty in these changing circumstances was demonstrated in the president’s cautious remarks on Bahrain. There the monarchy’s crackdown on the majority Shiite population continues with the destruction of mosques and other institutions. At the very least, this campaign of religious repression demands referral to the U.N. Human Rights Council. But the president instead offered only prudent counsel to the regime for dialogue and reform. Furthermore, the absence of Saudi Arabia from the countries he cited left the region’s religiously most repressive regime, and one of its most autocratic, without criticism. The United States cannot mount a credible policy on religious liberty without putting notable pressure on the Saudis. In addition, the president’s avoidance of the question of the future status of Jerusalem neglects an issue vital to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
President Obama’s position regarding the assaults by the Assad regime in Syria on its own civilians were reminiscent of the comments he made to Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak: Reform or step aside. But given the viciousness of attacks on unarmed civilians, their homes and neighborhoods, stronger responses were warranted. For one, the initiation of a complaint to the International Criminal Court would have been a suitable step toward formally delegitimating the regime of Bashir al-Assad. Given the ability of the Syrian regime to destabilize Israel, as witnessed by the rioting on the Golan Heights during the nakba demonstrations in mid-May, there is reason to hold back. But after Libya, Syria is the front line, where the forces of liberty and those of autocracy meet, and stronger action seems necessary if the Obama Doctrine is to initiate a genuine change in U.S. Mideast policy.
On Israel/Palestine, the president identified a baseline for re-initiation of a peace process, namely, recognition that the pre-1967 borders between the West Bank and Israel be the borders of the new Palestinian state. Though President Obama indicated the borders must be matched by security for Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel immediately rejected the proposal as “indefensible.” As in past negotiations, the prime minister appears to want to take still more Palestinian land and to continue to exercise imperialist control over neighboring territory.
If the Netanyahu government persists in this stance, the president would be wrong to reject the Palestinians’ demand for U.N. ratification of a unilateral declaration of independence this September. The Palestinian Authority under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has shown it can run its affairs effectively. The economy has been growing at the rate of 9 percent. Israel should not be given a veto on the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Palestinians, no less than Israeli Jews, have a right to a homeland. For Palestinians, a unilateral declaration of independence is the last wild card to be played to become an equal party in negotiations where Israel holds all the other cards.