Snap analysis: Obama's Mideast speech had political message too

WASHINGTON Thu May 19, 2011 3:13pm EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech about the United States' policy on the Middle East and North Africa at the State Department in Washington May 19, 2011. In his much-anticipated ''Arab spring'' speech, Obama will try to reset relations with the Middle East, but his outreach could falter amid Arab frustration over an uneven U.S. response to the region's revolts and his failure to advance Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech about the United States' policy on the Middle East and North Africa at the State Department in Washington May 19, 2011. In his much-anticipated ''Arab spring'' speech, Obama will try to reset relations with the Middle East, but his outreach could falter amid Arab frustration over an uneven U.S. response to the region's revolts and his failure to advance Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Young (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It may not have been a campaign speech, but President Barack Obama's foreign policy address on Thursday sent a series of political messages that could resonate in his 2012 race to retain the White House.

Standing in front of a row of American flags at the State Department, Obama directed his comments on U.S. policy to populations throughout the Middle East and North Africa, offering economic and political support for democratic reform.

But the president had another target audience: voters at home.

By spelling out U.S. positions on the war in Libya, violence in Syria, and roadblocks in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Obama addressed specific interest groups and crucial independent voters who use foreign policy as a criteria at the ballot box.

Here is a look at the political implications of Obama's speech:

1) Prodding the peace process forward.

By reaffirming strong U.S. support for Israeli security while pushing Israeli and Palestinian leaders to return to talks, Obama gave a nod to an important bloc of Jewish and Christian voters who watch relations with the region closely.

But his blunt language to Israel about its "occupation" of Arab land could backfire with some voters, who could view his message as too harsh to a key ally.

2) Showing leadership on Libya -- and Syria?

The White House has faced continued questions about U.S. participation in the war in Libya and the apparent contradiction with its reluctance to get involved in other conflicts spawned by the "Arab Spring."

Obama used his speech to remind Americans that military action was necessary to prevent a massacre in Libya.

On Syria, while not calling for intervention, Obama went further than he has before by telling President Bashar al-Assad he must lead his country's political transition or "get out of the way."

Those comments were meant to contradict accusations from critics that the president has not always been clear or swift in articulating a consistent U.S. policy toward different countries going through similar upheavals.

3) Using the optics.

It's easy to "look presidential" when you're the president of the United States, but such optics will play an increasingly important role as the political campaign heats up.

By using the bully pulpit of the presidency to advocate his foreign policy goals on live television, Obama reinforced the image of a world leader who is above the fray while his potential Republican opponents fight with each other to get their party's presidential nomination.

Obama also bolstered his case for being a strong leader by citing the successful operation to kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

4) Making the Arab Spring relevant to America.

Some voters may question why Obama spent so much time focusing on foreign policy while domestic worries such as expensive gasoline and high unemployment dominate U.S. voters' concerns.

Obama seemed to address that perception by drawing a connection between the United States and the Muslim world, saying the U.S. future is bound to that of the Middle East and North Africa.

He also compared the revolution in Tunisia to the struggle for racial equality in the U.S. South and highlighted the fact that an employee from a top American company -- Google -- was instrumental in the revolution that toppled an autocratic leader in Egypt.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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