A combination of calculation, luck and principles are steering the Obama administration to emphasize democracy and human rights in the Middle East in the post-Mubarak era.
On Tuesday, President Obama laid out a revamped strategy that takes into account U.S. strategic interests in the region while also emphasizing the need to accommodate uprisings that have swept away governments in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as protests nipping at U.S. allies in Barhain, Jordan and Yemen.
“I think my administration’s approach is the approach that jibes with how most Americans think about this region, which is that each country is different, each country has its own traditions,” Obama said at a White House news conference that was supposed to have been devoted to his proposed budget.
“America can’t dictate how they run their societies, but there are certain universal principles that we adhere to,” he said. “One of them is we don’t believe in violence as a way of—and coercion—as a way of maintaining control. And so we think it’s very important that in all the protests that we’re seeing in—throughout the region—that governments respond to peaceful protesters peacefully.”
The shift from a policy that had emphasized working with powers that be in the region to one urging accommodation of human rights on the ground resulted in part from the high-risk game Obama played as the grass-roots effort to unseat President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of rule unfolded in Egypt.
Obama administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, at first had expressed confidence in Mubarak, a longtime ally valued in part for maintaining peace with Israel.
When Mubarak proved defiant, however, and offered only limited concessions to protesters, the White House managed to get out a condemnation in the narrow window before it became clear that Mubarak was on his way out.
On Feb. 10, after Mubarak repeated that he would stay until September, Obama put out a statement within an hour calling on Egyptian authorities “to spell out in clear and unambiguous language the step-by-step process that will lead to democracy and the representative government that the Egyptian people seek.”
Within a day Mubarak had resigned, and the White House was able to bask in the impression that its most recent statement had urged him to go—pronto.
That has led to a dynamic of Washington pressing for greater liberties throughout the region while gently reminding the parties that the United States will continue to preserve its interests, said Steve Clemons, an influential foreign policy analyst who has attended National Security Council meetings on Egypt.
“The focus now is to preserve core national interests with other governments, particularly in the Middle East, and at the same time not to put ourselves at odds with publics in the Middle East,” he said.
That means insinuating reminders of where American interests lie in the regions into the same statements that uphold the rights of protesters to call their governments to account.
Obama in his remarks Tuesday was careful to praise Egypt’s transitional military government for offering reassurances that it would preserve the peace treaty with Israel—a signal to candidates in Egyptian elections to take place later this year that the United States would expect the same assurances from an elected government.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done in Egypt itself, but what we’ve seen so far is positive,” Obama said. “The military council that is in charge has reaffirmed its treaties with countries like Israel and international treaties.”
More such pronouncements expressing U.S. strategic interests should be forthcoming, said Steve Rosen, a former top analyst with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“There’s great anxiety in Israel about all this, although the Israelis have restrained themselves,” Rosen said. “The simple reality is Israel and America’s alliances are with the thin strata of the elite, not with the masses.”
Rosen said that Republicans are not checking Obama because they are under the influence of the party’s neoconservative wing, which for ideological reasons also is embracing the pro-democracy forces in the region.
“Lacking any kind of criticism for its failure to bring up strategic issues, the administration has had a free ride politically,” he observed.
In at least one area, Iran, the Obama administration is using its embrace of democratization to advance strategic goals. Obama and Clinton have referred to the success in Egypt as an example that should spur forward similar protests this week in Iran.
“We have sent a strong message to our allies in the region, saying let’s look at Egypt’s example as opposed to Iran’s example,” Obama said. “I find it ironic that you’ve got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt when, in fact, they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran.”
Administration officials also are using the crises and change in the region to hit back at congressional Republicans who before the upheaval spoke of slashing foreign assistance. Clinton made the Middle East changes a focal point of her congressional meetings this week.
“Events in Egypt show how important it is that we have a global diplomatic presence, a presence that will be ready to handle crises, prevent conflicts, protect American citizens overseas, and protect American economic and strategic interests,” Clinton said after meeting Monday with Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.