U.S. President Barack Obama's speech on West Asia on Thursday was a belated response to extraordinary events over which the U.S. has so far exercised precious little influence.

The President lavished praise on the spirit of people power that has animated this year's “Arab spring” but also made clear that direct U.S. involvement in the region would remain selective.

Debt relief

Billions of dollars in debt relief and loans for post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia will be a boost for troubled economies, though it will not erase the memory of long years of U.S. support for their now deposed dictators, Hosni Mubarak and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Strikingly, Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive countries in the Arab world and a key U.S. ally and oil supplier, got not a single mention in the 5,400-word speech.

Nor did Mr. Obama offer any really new ideas on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, reiterating the “unshakeable” U.S. commitment to Israel's security. Support for the 1967 border has long been the basis for any workable settlement, even if mention of it annoys Israeli right-wingers. It was clearly intended as a sharp reminder to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of where the parameters lie.

The President's ringing declaration of support for Arab human rights was tempered by careful anticipation of the charge that U.S. policies are inconsistent or selective policies. America could not “prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people”, but in Libya the prospect was one of imminent massacre by Muammar Qadhafi's forces. Still, he gave no clues on future strategy in Libya.

Mr. Obama had harsh words for Bashar al-Assad of Syria, where hundreds have been killed by the security forces, but he did not address the reason why Libyan logic did not apply, and why Syria's dictator should not also be removed.

Iran was rebuked for its “hypocrisy” in supporting Arab protests abroad while crushing them at home. On Bahrain — “a long-standing partner” (and home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet) — there was no sense that locking up the opposition would be punished by the U.S.

Mr. Netanyahu will be pleased at Mr. Obama's exclusion of the Palestinian movement Hamas as a negotiating partner. Overall, though, the U.S. President did not go beyond what he said on the conflict in his big Cairo speech in June 2009. But he was right to repeat the now familiar mantra: “The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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