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Obama Middle East speech: That was the easy part

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Mr. Obama backed up his endorsement with a $2 billion financial package to a democratic Egypt, and trade and economic incentives to encourage countries to transition to democracy. And he tried to move forward the related issue of a two-state solution to the Palestinian question by suggesting that negotiations start with a plan based on the pre-1967 borders and Israel’s security. That’s a welcome, definitive step.

And yet, ambiguities about American policy remain, born of the situation on the ground and of US interests that compete with the overall goal of helping a region slip from the grasp of autocrats.

The president spelled out America’s interests in the region, which is a helpful review for an overview speech like this. Those interests are to keep terrorism and nuclear weapons at bay (think of countries such as Iran and Yemen), while advancing regional security and free commerce (he’s talking oil, here), and Israeli security and Israeli-Palestinian peace.

These interests, he maintained, “are not hostile to people’s hopes.” And indeed, a democratic Middle East and North Africa would not be served by a nuclear arms race with Iran or a sudden cut off in oil supplies.

But in the short term, those questions do present policy challenges and choices. A prime example involves the autocratic rulers in the Gulf states, which are also America’s allies against Iran. Push democracy in Bahrain? Or choose to keep a US naval base there that keeps Iran in check and ensures that oil tankers can move about?

An immediate concern, too, is the US budget and an overextended military. Go all the way in Libya and topple Muammar Qaddafi? Or play merely a supportive role in the NATO military operation there, skirt Congress and the War Powers Resolution, and hope for a tightening against Qaddafi that eventually forces him out

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