WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was delivering a report card on the Arab Spring on Monday, taking stock at a time when the euphoria of the successful revolutions from Egypt to Libya is giving way to the hard and unprecedented work of creating stable democracies.
For Syrians fighting for a freer future, the fear is they may never even get the chance.
After almost a year of protests and crackdowns, armed rebellion and civil war, the Arab world's upheaval has left a jumbled mosaic of liberals and Islamists, military rulers and loose coalitions of reformers. No country appears unalterably on a path toward democratic governance, and for the people of the region and the United States the stakes of long-term instability are high.
U.S. interests, including the security of oil supplies, military relations and Israel's defense, have forced the Obama administration to engage in flexible diplomacy, with different messages for different countries.
The one-size-does-not-fit-all approach has meant U.S. support for an imperfect military stewardship over Egypt ahead of elections for a new parliament and president. It also meant the U.S. largely overlooked ally Bahrain's rough response to protests earlier this year.
Washington helped a military effort that ultimately deposed Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. It also demanded that leaders in Syria and Yemen leave power, without any real means to make them do so.
Clinton's keynote address at the National Democratic Institute will look at the good and the bad of the Arab Spring, as seen through the prism of the American interests. It will also likely reflect criticism from Republicans that the administration has either acted too cautiously to bolster would-be democrats or foolishly opened the door to Islamist takeovers of once-secular governments.
It is Clinton's first comprehensive speech on the region since April, when Libya's armed overthrow of four decades of dictatorship under Gadhafi was far from assured and President Bashar Assad's crackdown in Syria was widening. If Libya's revolutionaries have since provided their country with a new beginning, the situation in Syria has only gotten bloodier.
But the greatest U.S. preoccupation may still be Egypt, the bulwark of American influence in the Middle East under the three-decade rule of Hosni Mubarak.
U.S. officials have watched warily in recent months amid souring Egyptian-Israeli relations, violence against minority Copts and renewed popular frustration with a military leadership determined to maintain its grip on the future of the country, if not its governance. In a travel notice Monday, the State Department warned Americans of the potential for more demonstrations to degenerate into "violent clashes between police and protesters."
Since Mubarak's February ouster, Clinton has gone out of her way to describe Egypt's ruling military council as "an institution of stability and continuity," even as the U.S. has been frustrated by the council's slow pace of democratic reforms and continuation of the emergency laws that were a mainstay of abuse during the Mubarak era. At the same time, the U.S. has cautiously reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist opposition group likely to wield significant power in the future.
The strategy pivots on convincing Egypt to stick to scheduled elections later this year, regardless of whether votes over the next 18 months produce a new government that is less boisterously pro-American than Mubarak's regime was. Washington is hoping that steadfast support for democracy will win the U.S. new, long-term friends who'll support counterterrorism and diplomatic efforts, like Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, that may be deemed vital for American national security but not necessarily supported by the Egyptian people.
The demands on Egypt represent in some ways the set of American hopes and fears with the movements for greater democracy in the Arab world. Democracy can bring stability to an area of the world long riddled with corruption, economic disparity and underachievement. But the power vacuum of transition could let some countries slide back into military domination or create a powerful new wave of intolerant populism — as occurred after Iran's Islamic revolution a little more than three decades ago.
Tunisia, which held landmarks elections last month, is probably on the surest footing among the Arab World countries in transition. Tunisia holds little strategic value for the U.S, but Libya is different, with its vast oil reserves and importance as a fuel provider to U.S. allies in Europe such as Italy and France.
The National Transitional Council last week chose a new prime minister with instructions to form a new government by mid-month, and the U.S. is hoping to aid the transition by unfreezing more of the $37 billion in assets it seized from Gadhafi. So far the U.S. has released only $700 million.
Of the other Arab countries hanging in the balance, Syria presents the United States with the greatest opportunity for a new strategic foothold. The 40-year Assad dynasty has been a constant thorn for Washington, closely partnering Iran and supporting the militant anti-Israeli group Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
A change of government offers obvious upsides for the U.S., which is calling for Assad to step down. But Syria's government has fiercely resisted calls from its people for reform, and protesters lack the capacity to stand up to Syrian forces. More than 3,000 people have died since March. Sanctions efforts at the United Nations have failed, and Washington has very little leverage with Damascus after decades of isolating the Syrian economy.
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