WASHINGTON, May 19, 2011 — Amid extraordinary changes taking place in the Middle East and North Africa, the United States is responding in ways that advance the nation’s values and strengthen its security, President Barack Obama said in a speech here today.
Obama described how people across the region have risen up against oppressive governments during the past six months, town by town, in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Bahrain.
“The question before us is: What role America will play as this story unfolds?” Obama said.
“For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region — countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region, standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace,” he said.
The United States will continue these efforts, keeping commitments to friends and partners, the president said.
After years of war in Iraq, 100,000 troops have moved out of the country, he said.
“The Iraqis have rejected the perils of political violence in favor of a democratic process, even as they’ve taken full responsibility for their own security,” the president said. Sectarian divides need not lead to conflict, he added. Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region, he added, if its progress continues.
“As they do,” he said, “we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.”
In Afghanistan, the United States and its coalition partners have broken the Taliban’s momentum, Obama said. Starting in July, U.S. troops will begin returning home and the job of security in Afghanistan will transition to that nation’s own military.
“And after years of war against al-Qaida and its affiliates,” Obama said, “we have dealt al-Qaida a huge blow by killing its leader, Osama bin Laden.” Bin Laden was no martyr, the president said.
“He was a mass murderer who offered a message of hate, an insistence that Muslims had to take up arms against the West, and that violence against men, women and children was the only path to change,” Obama said.
Bin Laden rejected democracy and individual rights for Muslims in favor of violent extremism, winning some followers but alienating others with his “slaughter of innocents,” he said.
“By the time we found bin Laden,” the president said, “al-Qaida’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands.”
In too many countries in the region, “calls for change have been answered by violence.” Obama said.
The most extreme example is Libya, he said, where Moammar Gadhafi launched a war against his own people, “promising to hunt them down like rats.”
Today, “the opposition has organized a legitimate and credible interim council. And when Gadhafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power, decades of provocation will come to an end and the transition to a democratic Libya can proceed,” he said.
In the months ahead, Obama said America must use its influence to encourage all countries in the region to embrace reform.
“Our message is simple,” he said. “If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States.”
Middle Eastern and North African nations won their independence long ago, he said, but in too many places their people did not.
The choice that must be made in these nations is the same that must be made across the region, he said — the choice between hate and hope.
“It’s a choice that must be made by leaders and by people,” he said, and one “that will define the future of a region that served as the cradle of civilization and a crucible of strife.”
For the American people, he said, the scenes of upheaval in the region may be unsettling but the forces driving it are familiar.
Our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire, Obama said. Our people fought a painful civil war that extended freedom and dignity to those who were enslaved, he said.
“I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of nonviolence as a way to perfect our union,” the president said.
“Organizing, marching, and protesting peacefully together,” Obama said, “to make real those words that declared our nation: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.’ ”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)