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Allies pressing Obama on Mideast

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is facing pressure from key allies to act more decisively on several volatile issues in the Middle East and North Africa, including the rebellion in Libya, the uprising in Syria and the moribund peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

On Wednesday, the administration sought to address what some allies have perceived as a drift in Obama's policy toward the rapidly changing region, after weeks when Osama bin Laden's killing and a debate over the national debt took center stage.

On the eve of a major Middle East speech meant to define U.S. interests there, Obama announced new financial sanctions against seven senior Syrian officials for human rights abuses, naming President Bashar al-Assad among them for the first time.

In a preview of Obama's address, which is at 11:40 a.m. today, senior administration officials outlined a number of economic initiatives the president will announce to encourage democratic changes in the region, including a total of $2 billion in debt relief and loan guarantees for Egypt's fledging government.

The speech is Obama's first attempt to place the antigovernment demonstrations, which have swept away autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and threatened several others, in the context of American interests and values.

According to the Washington Post, administration officials say the address will not include a host of new proposals but rather will seek to make the broader point that the United States favors democratic reform as something consistent with its long-term security interest in the region's stability.

The Post reported, for instance, that officials said he is not expected to call specifically for Assad's removal as Syria's leader.

The speech will serve as the rhetorical centerpiece of a busy period of Middle East diplomacy for Obama, beginning in Washington and moving next week to the Group of Eight summit of economic powers in France.

Obama met Tuesday with a key Arab ally, King Abdullah II of Jordan, who, the Post reported, Arab diplomats say lobbied the president to use his address to outline a specific blueprint for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Obama, who is hosting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday at the White House, inaugurated a new round of peace talks last year, only to see them collapse within weeks.

Netanyahu has argued that violence in Syria, the new Palestinian unity agreement, and the changes in Egypt create too much uncertainty for peace talks to begin soon.

U.S. officials have also said it is too early to tell what kind of Palestinian government will emerge from the agreement between the secular Fatah movement, which recognizes Israel, and Hamas, the armed Islamist movement designated a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel.

How much Obama should say about the peace process in this speech has been the subject of debate inside the White House for weeks. As recently as Tuesday, drafts of the speech were circulating with the Israeli-Palestinian section omitted.

Obama is also being asked to do more in North Africa.

The Post reported that European diplomats have said this week that Obama, when he visits Britain and France next week, should expect to hear requests for help in escalating the military campaign against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

The rebellion has largely stalled on the ground, and some European diplomats say, the Post reports, that more American help is needed to hit Gadhafi's command-and-control sites.

Obama hesitated to fully back the antigovernment demonstrations as they unfolded in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, following some European leaders in calling for regime change.

Obama also has cautiously championed reform, but not a change in government, in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where the United States has interests in maintaining the status quo.

Administration officials said U.S. diplomats are one target audience for the speech, which will spell out the need for new diplomacy to meet the challenges posed by movements harnessing social media and other technology to overturn autocracies.

Drawing on the findings of an internal White House study of democratic transitions from Latin America to Southeast Asia, Obama will propose a set of economic policy prescriptions to help ensure that democratic governments take hold in the region.

In addition to the debt relief and loan guarantees for Egypt, the proposals are designed to encourage economic reform, trade liberalization, educational support and training to improve private-sector management practices, as well as financial help from lending institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which played a key role in Eastern Europe's transition to democracy.

Allies pressing Obama on Mideast 05/19/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 19, 2011 12:02am]
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