Barack Obama really feels US positions are more reasonable, he likes using the word modest, than most people in his audience will on Thursday. This gap in perceptions will certainly be accentuated by the speech, and the US will certainly be seen more negatively than before. When Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah give their post-speech criticisms, most Iranians and Lebanese will agree with their co-religionists. Obama does seem to be cautious enough that there will not be a "birth pangs"-level mistake. Instead it will just be a reinforcement of what people in the region already understand to be US policy - which means that it will be a dashing of hope that Barack Obama ever represented a change in US priorities or policies.
Obama recently did an interview with NPR, the US left-leaning National Public Radio:
Norris: You've mentioned many times the importance of reaching out to Iran with an open hand, trying to engage that country. Are you also willing to try to engage with Hezbollah or Hamas, entities that have now had significant gains in recent elections?
Well, let's just underscore a point here. Iran is a huge, significant nation state that has, I think, across the international community been recognized as such. Hezbollah and Hamas are not. And I don't think that we have to approach those entities in the same way.
Norris: If I may ask though, does that change with their electoral — does that change with their electoral gains?
Well, look, if at some point — Lebanon is a member of the United Nations — if at some point they are elected as a head of state or a head of state is elected in Lebanon that is a member of that organization, then that would raise these issues. That hasn't happened yet.
With respect to Hamas, I do think that if they recognize the Quartet principles [referring to the United States, Russia, European Union and the United Nations] that have been laid out — and these are fairly modest conditions here — that you recognize the state of Israel without prejudging what various grievances or claims are appropriate, that you abide by previous agreements, that you renounce violence as a means of achieving your goals — then I think the discussions with Hamas could potentially proceed.
And so, the problem has been that there has been a preference oftentimes on the part of these organizations to use violence and not take responsibility for governance as a means of winning propaganda wars or advancing their organizational aims. At some point though, they may make a transition. There are examples of, in the past, organizations that have successfully transitioned from violent organizations to ones that recognize that they can achieve their aims more effectively through political means. And I hope that occurs.
Justin Webb: Do you regard President Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler?
President Obama: No, I tend not to use labels for folks. I haven't met him. I've spoken to him on the phone.
He has been a stalwart ally in many respects, to the United States. He has sustained peace with Israel, which is a very difficult thing to do in that region.
But he has never resorted to, you know, unnecessary demagoging of the issue, and has tried to maintain that relationship. So I think he has been a force for stability. And good in the region. Obviously, there have been criticisms of the manner in which politics operates in Egypt.
And, as I said before, the United States' job is not to lecture, but to encourage, to lift up what we consider to be the values that ultimately will work - not just for our country, but for the aspirations of a lot of people.
These are pretty much the answers the US' opponents would expect from a US president, Obama, Bush, Clinton or anyone capable of being elected. The US positions themselves, without any exaggeration or distortion, are outside of the mainstream of political thought in the region.
Obama will not provoke the amount of anger Bush would have, as Bush would have been more clumsy if he attempted a speech like this, but Bush did something better. He didn't attempt a speech like this. The US seems hypocritical and biased in its policies because US policies are hypocritical and biased, but Obama is clearly if unintentionally delivering the hypocrisy and bias directly to a large Muslim audience.
I expect both Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah to do a little better in their elections this month than if the speech hadn't been given, but the speech will not be a huge issue in either direction.