Obama faces frustration, traps in Riyadh, Cairo

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  June 3, 2009 at 9:36 AM
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WASHINGTON, June 3 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama flew to Riyadh Wednesday in an effort to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but Saudi officials have cautioned that his appeals to King Abdallah to make a new gesture to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu may fall on deaf ears.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that the Saudis believed they had gone as far as they could in endorsing and pushing the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that offered Israel full recognition in return for its retreat to its 1967 boundaries before the Six Day War. But that move would include leaving the historic Old City of Jerusalem. With the 1,100 civilian dead of the Second Palestinian Intifada still a recent trauma and the Israeli electorate having taken a sharp turn to the right in their Feb. 10 elections, there is no way Netanyahu will agree to that.

Obama is on a trip that includes stops in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Germany and France. The last two are part of D-Day commemorations with its 55th anniversary on Saturday.

The first stop is the president's meet-and-greet with King Abdallah in Saudi Arabia, in which there are no public sessions planned, just "pool sprays."

Along with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the other two issues expected to be on the president's agenda with Abdallah are oil prices and nuclear proliferation, particularly in Iran. The Saudis and other mainstream Sunni Arab leaders in Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states have been uneasy that Obama may be giving too much of a free hand to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, encouraging hard-liners in Tehran to push ahead with their development of nuclear weapons. If that happened, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States might be forced to come up with some kind of accommodation with the Iranians on Tehran's terms.

Obama's second Middle East stop is potentially his most interesting. The president is to make a speech Thursday in Cairo regarding U.S. policy and the Muslim world. White House officials have already signaled that Obama will not be harshly criticizing his host, President Hosni Mubarak, who at age 81 is the second-longest-serving ruler in the Middle East. Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi comes first, celebrating his 40th anniversary in power this year. Obama has praised Mubarak as a force for stability in the region.

In his speech, Obama will face the pressure of rising expectations. He is personally liked and admired across the Arab world, but recent polls suggest that popular distrust of the United States has not abated significantly since he took office. There is a widespread sense that the president cannot rely on charm alone and will have to deliver progress on the peace process and show himself a credible champion of democracy and change in the region, removing U.S. combat forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, if he wants to get the popular impact he seeks.

Obama may repeat his and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's demand that the Israeli government halt all settlement building beyond its 1967 borders including that for natural increase in existing settlements.

But whatever Obama says, there is a precedent from 20 years ago he needs to remember. In 1989 Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who had already been energetically implementing his perestroika and glasnost reforms at home for four years, visited China, which was still under the tough authoritarian control of Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping. Gorbachev did not appear to want to deliberately destabilize the Chinese government, but he did so inadvertently anyway. His visit greatly boosted the demands for democracy in China that led to gigantic demonstrations of millions of people in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, provoking Deng's government to brutally crush them, killing hundreds of people.

The current Chinese government of President Hu Jintao is certainly hoping Obama will make headlines with his Cairo speech Thursday, since that would take the spotlight off the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests, which falls on the very same day.

But the last thing Obama wants is to inadvertently set off widespread popular protests that could destabilize Mubarak's government. That would undermine his own leverage with other Arab nations, especially oil-producing Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, far more dangerously than his failure to deliver fast on the peace process.

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