Amid searing change in the Middle East and North Africa, President Barack Obama will address U.S. policy toward the region in a speech that could be delivered as early as next week.
Aides said Obama's emphasis would be regional and political, highlighting the democratic values that have linked the popular uprisings that started in Tunisia and Egypt and quickly spread throughout the region. But Obama was not expected to focus on religion, as he did in his address to the Muslim world during a 2009 trip to Cairo.
A U.S. official said Obama had originally planned to deliver the speech during the first week in May, but it was pushed back because of the raid in Pakistan that led to the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. A new date has not been officially set, but the White House said Obama could speak before he leaves for a nearly weeklong trip to Europe next weekend. The speech would be in this country, not overseas.
Bin Laden's death has given the White House an opportunity to cast al-Qaida as a movement past its prime, as young people throughout the Middle East and North Africa turn to political protest, not terrorism, to vent their grievances.
"It's an interesting coincidence of timing — that he is killed at the same time that you have a model emerging in the region of change that is completely the opposite of bin Laden's model," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser at the White House, , which first reported on the planned speech on Tuesday.
Obama plans to make the case that bin Laden represented a failed approach of the past while populist movements brewing in the Middle East and North Africa represent the future, U.S. officials told the Journal.
The U.S. has struggled to find a consistent approach to the political uprisings that have swept through the region. While Obama publicly called for longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to step down from power, he has not challenged the legitimacy of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose forces are leading a bloody crackdown against political protesters. The White House says there are no plans for military action to stop that crackdown, despite the U.S., along with European and Arab allies, using military power to try to stop government-backed forces from attacking civilians in Moammar Gadhafi's Libya.
The White House has said that each country is unique and therefore the U.S. response must be as well. But Obama aides, and the State Department in particular, have grown anxious for the president to publicly outline his thoughts and policies on the Arab awakening in a comprehensive way.
Though details of the speech are still being decided, the president is expected to highlight the underlying values that have united political movements throughout the region, including the yearning for more freedom and better standards of living.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also hinted at some of the themes Obama would touch on during the speech, noting that the U.S. is focused on partnerships not just with governments in the Middle East and North Africa, but also the peoples of the region.
"We start from the understanding that America's core interests and values have not changed, including our commitment to promote human rights, resolve longstanding conflicts, counter Iran's threats, and defeat al-Qaida and its extremist allies," she said during a speech in Washington last month.
Obama's agenda next week will already be heavily focused on the Middle East, with Jordan's King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making separate visits to the White House.
Obama is not expected to detail a fresh path for peace between Israel and the Palestinians in his speech, although he is likely to discuss the conflict in the context of the wider region and note that the ongoing changes elsewhere in the Middle East could actually help the peace process.