Obama "views the situation in…the Middle East and North Africa as a real moment of opportunity for America and for Americans," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One Wednesday in response to questions about tomorrow's speech.
"In the last decade, our focus in the region was largely on Iraq, which was a military effort, and on the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the fight against al Qaeda," Carney continued.
While the fight against al Qaeda continues, Carney said, "there is an opportunity in that region to focus on advancing our values and enhancing our security, and that's what the president looks forward to discussing tomorrow in his speech."
Even the choice of venue for the speech—the seat of U.S. diplomacy—signals the Obama administration's emphasis on a more diplomatic, less militarized U.S. engagement with the region.
Obama is also supposed to propose significant U.S. and international economic assistance to support fledgling Arab democracies, in particular in Egypt and Tunisia.
The speech is expected to be a forum for the administration "to say, look, this is an opportunity to finally turn the page on the post-9/11 decade," said Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University. "I will be surprised if they don't say something along the lines of—just as we said in Cairo [in Obama's June 2009 speech to the Arab world]—we want a relationship with the people of the Middle East, not just based on terrorism, but on mutual interest and respect."
Lynch also predicted Obama would emphasize that the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring, which displaced repressive regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, while sparking similar pro-democracy protests throughout Arab world—are "being driven by the people of the region. It's not about us."
"The big difference in the DNA of these [Obama] guys and the Bush people is, the Bush people had a U.S.-centric view: that nothing happens in the world if the United States is not at the center of it," Lynch said. The Obama administration "believes the United States has an important role to play, but is not the driver."
In the context of the Arab Spring, "one of the biggest challenges of the speech will be explaining to Americans that this is not primarily about us," agreed Heather Hurlburt, a former Clinton administration speechwriter. "It is about aspirations we recognize," said Hurlburt, who is now executive director of the progressive National Security Network, "but it is not going to happen on our timetable."
Hurlburt suggests that Obama will use his remarks to "connect what is about us—our security and values, and our enduring interests vis a vis Israel, etc. with what is not about us, in terms of the pace, structure and form of change."