President Obama attempted to reset relations with the Arab world Thursday in a comprehensive speech that positioned the United States and its values squarely behind the democratic uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa and promised aid to help promote economic growth and stability across the region.
"Across the region, those rights that we take for granted are being claimed with joy by those who are prying loose the grip of an iron fist," Obama said during a 45-minute speech at the State Department.
It is a historic opportunity for the Middle East, Obama said, after decades of oppression fraught with violence, terrorism and a deep animosity towards the United States and the western world.
"That is the choice that must be made - not simply in this conflict, but across the entire region - a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past, and the promise of the future," he said. "It's a choice that must be made by leaders and by people, and it's a choice that will define the future of a region that served as the cradle of civilization and a crucible of strife."
For U.S. observers, he said, the scenes of upheaval in the region may be unsettling but the forces are not unfamiliar from the historic beginnings of the United States.
"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," he said. "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."
The President also delved into the longstanding and often fierce conflict between Israel and Palestine, strongly reaffirming U.S. support for the two states with "secure and recognized" borders based upon lines drawn in 1967.
"The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state," he said. "As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself - by itself - against any threat."
The democratic uprisings that began this spring in Tunisia and quickly spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria are inspirational but rooted in the lack of economic opportunity, as well as the demand for more political rights and self government.
"After all, politics alone has not put protesters into the streets," Obama said. "Too many in the region wake up with few expectations other than making it through the day, and perhaps the hope that their luck will change. Throughout the region, many young people have a solid education, but closed economies leave them unable to find a job. Entrepreneurs are brimming with ideas, but corruption leaves them unable to profit from them."
To that end, Obama announced U.S. steps to cancel nearly a billion dollars worth of Egyptian and Tunisian debt, establish a Egyptian-American private enterprise fund and guarantee up to a billion dollars in borrowing through the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a U.S. agency that mobilizes private-sector investment in new and emerging markets, according to senior administration officials.
The President also ratcheted up the pressure on Syria after expanding sanctions to specifically target Syrian President Bashar al Assad for his bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters. Assad has a choice: either give in to demands for a democratic transition in the country or face continuous leadership challenges and become increasingly isolated internationally, Obama said.
"The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way," he said.
On Libya, Obama reiterated his position that the U.S. and its NATO allies were right to intervene militarily to prevent an imminent massacre of thousands of opposition rebels and predicted that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi will eventually be forced from power.
"When Qaddafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power, decades of provocation will come to an end, and the transition to a democratic Libya can proceed," he said.
The President did not mince words when it came to Iran, accusing if of "hypocrisy" for promoting protests in Bahrain while oppressing its own people. He did not dwell on Iran, however, only briefing condemning the country's intolerance, illicit nuclear program and support for terrorist organizations.
The speech also did not mention Saudi Arabia, which has close ties to the U.S., is a major oil supplier and was home to several of the 9/11 hijackers.
Instead, Obama argued that Osama Bin Laden's death has created a moment of opportunity for launching a new chapter for the Middle East.
"Bin Laden was no martyr," Obama said. "He was a mass murderer who offered a message of hate - an insistence that Muslims had to take up arms against the west, and that violence against men, women and children was the only path to change. He rejected democracy and individual rights for Muslims in favor of violent extremism."