As Arabs protest, U.S. offers assertive support

The Obama administration is openly supporting the anti-government demonstrations shaking the Arab Middle East,
Supporters of Lebanon's caretaker Saad al-Hariri carry a banner during a protest calling for Hariri to remain as Prime Minister and form the new government, in front of the grave of Lebanon's assassinated former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri in downtown Beirut, January 24, 2011.

By Scott Wilson and Joby Warrick

The Obama administration is openly supporting the anti-government demonstrations shaking the Arab Middle East, a stance that is far less tempered than the one the president has taken during past unrest in the region.

As demonstrations in Tunis, Cairo and Beirut have unfolded in recent days, President Obama and his senior envoys to the region have thrown U.S. support clearly behind the protesters, speaking daily in favor of free speech and assembly even when the protests target longtime U.S. allies such as Egypt.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that “the Egyptian government has an important opportunity . . . to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” She urged “the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications, including on social media sites.”

Asked whether the administration supports Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs replied only: “Egypt is a strong ally.”

Administration officials say they will pursue a dual-track approach in the coming weeks, both speaking with civil activists in Egypt and meeting with officials to encourage reform in the bellwether Arab nation.

Such an approach comes with a degree of risk in the region, where democratic reforms have often empowered well-organized Islamist movements at odds with U.S. objectives. As a result, the United States has often favored the stability of authoritarian allies in the Middle East over the uncertainty of democratic change.

The administration’s assertive stance contrasts sharply with Obama’s approach during his first year in office, when he often tempered his advocacy of human rights and democracy with a large measure of pragmatism. His decision this time reflects the rising importance of those issues in his foreign policy goals.

The president is also less reluctant to inject the United States into the Arab Middle East after two years of speaking directly to the Muslim world, withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq and supporting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, even though it has since faltered. Polls show U.S. popularity rising in many Arab countries since Obama took office and falling in a smaller number of others.

“Some of the confidence and assertiveness comes from having spent time in government, and now we’ve identified ways where we want to make our push,” said a senor administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss White House thinking on the Middle East developments.

The official said Obama’s emphasis on Internet freedom as well as on U.S.-funded programs to encourage rule of law and government accountability are among the measures the administration is using to foster change.

“We’ve aligned our approach to where we see the currents of democratic reform moving,” the official said.

On the sidelines in Iran

In his June 2009 address in Cairo to the Islamic world, Obama said “there is no straight line to realize this promise” of democratic government with respect for human rights. He offered mild advice to the region’s autocrats, saying that “governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure.”

But within weeks, tens of thousands of Iranians rallied in the streets after a presidential election widely believed to have been rigged in favor of the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

While calling on the Iranian government to respect the right of its people to demonstrate peacefully, Obama stayed largely on the sidelines as the Green Movement rose and fell under the weight of a government crackdown.

One senior administration official said at the time: “There is clearly a debate going on among Iranians about Iran. This is not about us.” Conservatives criticized Obama for not calling for the Iranian government’s overthrow.

Obama signaled a different approach to democracy last fall in his address to the U.N. General Assembly, where, in addition to calling for a final settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, he elevated human rights as a tenet of his foreign policy.

With the young populations, epidemic unemployment and political stagnation of the Arab world as his tacit target, Obama said that “America is working to shape a world that fosters . . . openness, for the rot of a closed or corrupt economy must never eclipse the energy and innovation of human beings.”

But many in the Middle East have heard U.S. pledges of support before.

“Why should we follow American advice in the name of democracy?” asked Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader in Lebanon who recently threw his movement’s support behind Hezbollah’s choice for prime minister at the expense of the U.S.-backed candidate. “They have nothing to teach us when they have supported dictators.”

No anti-U.S. rhetoric

While the current unrest is directed against U.S. allies, all of it is dictated by distinct political circumstances largely beyond Washington’s control. So far, at least, the demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia have not featured anti-American rhetoric or been shaped by political Islam.

And in Lebanon, where Hezbollah, the armed Shiite movement, has pushed through its preferred candidate for prime minister, the United States has little leverage.

Administration officials say Obama has, as a result, felt less constrained in taking a firm position in favor of democratic reform, without fear that the United States will be blamed for instigating the unrest.

“Democracy had been characterized in some quarters as the United States seeking to control countries,” said the senior official. “What we’ve made clear in the last few years is that democracy is important to the United States because of who we are, but not as a means of controlling governments. Quite the contrary, we’re supporting a process in Tunisia now that we do not know how it will end or who will emerge as leader.”

On Tuesday, Obama used his State of the Union address to highlight the Tunisian demonstrations, which this month drove authoritarian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power after more than two decades.

“The will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator,” he said, adding that “the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”

The senior administration official said the events in Tunisia played out as the speech was being drafted, and Obama settled on them as the example he would use to promote democratic values.

The Egyptian protests arose too late in the drafting process for inclusion, but the official said that last phrase was “intended to convey that we recognize that what happened in Tunisia resonated around the world.”

Tunisia has never been a hotbed of Islamism, and the opposition has not claimed a religious mandate to govern. A day before Ben Ali was ousted from power, Clinton criticized Arab leaders for the autocratic control they exert on their societies.

Egyptian opposition activists carry an Egyptian flag, at left, and a Tunisian flag during a protest in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Jan. 15, 2011

Jeffrey Feltman, the top U.S. diplomat for the region, said during a visit to Tunisia this week that “I certainly expect that we’ll be using the Tunisian example” in urging other Arab leaders to change.

Egypt, a longtime U.S. ally that has received billions of dollars annually in aid, is an influential player in the Arab world. The country’s largest and most organized opposition is the Muslim Brotherhood, the seminal Islamist movement, which has declined so far to officially join the demonstrations.

“The most the U.S. can do in the short run is reorient their rhetoric,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research for the Brookings Doha Center. “People want moral support; they want to hear words of encouragement. Right now, they don’t have that. They feel the world doesn’t care and the world is working against them.”