The Obama administration is drawing fire from foreign policy experts for its mixed messages regarding the historic wave of unrest sweeping across the Middle East and threatening to transform the oil-rich region.
Increasingly, the administration is coming under criticism for first
appearing to encourage pro-democracy movements that it now seems very reticent to embrace. The clash over human rights also appears to be on the verge of triggering a political clash in the United States: Republicans well remember the tepid White House response to the crackdown on protesters following fraudulent elections in Iran in 2009. Republicans complained that President Barack Obama’s response was too timid.
The administration’s ambivalence stems from the region’s volatility. There is uncertainty over whether stable, Democratic regimes can prevail over the Islamic extremism that is so common in the nations now experiencing unrest.
Obama weighed in on the uprising in Egypt during a YouTube interview on Thursday. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has dominated the country for more than three decades, has been very helpful to the United States, Obama said.
“My main hope right now is that violence is not the answer in solving these problems in Egypt. So the government has to be careful about not resorting to violence, and the people on the streets have to be careful about not resorting to violence. And I think it is very important that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate differences.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration believes the Mubarak government is stable, and called Mubarak a “close and important partner.”
As part of the administration’s ongoing balancing act, Gibbs added: “We consistently have advocated for the universal rights of assembly, of free speech, of political reform.”
Egypt is hovering on the precipice of a political upheaval, with massive demonstrations set for Friday. Egypt’s Mohamed ElBaradei, a national hero for his high-profile work as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has thrown his support behind the rebellion and is calling for a new government.
ElBaradei announced that he will return to Cairo to participate in the huge rally. Egyptian officials have denied reports that Mubarak’s family has fled the country for refuge in London.
Foreign policy experts fear the extremist Muslim Brotherhood may take advantage of the crisis and seize power. The unrest in Egypt is just the latest episode of unrest gripping the region.
In recent weeks, the governments of Tunisia, rocked by the Jasmine Revolution, and Lebanon have fallen. Lebanon now appears to be in the hands of the terrorist organization Hezbollah after a controversial report on a political assassination disrupted the government.
Embarrassing WikiLeaks cables that exposed the corruption of the Ben Ali regime and his family in Tunisia may have contributed to the uprising that deposed that nation’s former president. Observers say the disclosures contributed to the anger that fueled the uprising, which thus far does not appear to be linked to radical extremism.
In a domino effect of Middle East unrest, the Jasmine Revolution inspired mass protests in al-Qaida hotbed Yemen, and in Israel’s neighbor to the south, Egypt.
In Egypt, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Cairo and other cities, chanting, waving signs and lobbing Molotov cocktails at police.
Mubarak has responded with the clenched fist that has helped him maintain power for three decades.
On Tuesday, Mubarak outlawed further public demonstrations. That did not discourage the would-be revolutionaries from taking to the streets again in a country stricken by rampant poverty – 40 percent of its workers earn less than $2 per day.
Police reacted with a brutal crackdown, firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, pummeling protesters with repeated blows from bamboo-cane poles and dragging dissidents away from the safety of the angry crowd.
In the clashes, a government building was torched and six were killed. At least 55 protesters and 15 police were injured, according to various reports. More than 850 protesters have been arrested, Egyptian authorities said.
In the past, Obama appeared to stand firmly with pro-democracy forces. He stated unequivocally in his much-noted June 2009 Cairo speech: “No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation on any other . . . But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose.
“These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere,” he said.
Similarly, in a recent speech in Doha, Qatar, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that regimes in the Middle East were in danger of “sinking into the sand” if they didn’t enact reforms.
"Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries' problems for a little while, but not forever," she said, a warning which seems prescient in the wake of Tunisian events.
"If leaders don't offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum,” she said.
But in recent days, the administration has moved carefully, balancing its support for the right to civil protest with support for Middle East stability. And that equivocation has angered activists, including most notably in Egypt.
ElBaradei, whose work at the IAEA to stop nuclear proliferation earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, said he was stunned when Clinton released a statement Tuesday describing the Egyptian government as “stable.” She urged restraint and said the Mubarak government was “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”
ElBaradei, an oft-mentioned possible alternative to the 82-year-old Mubarak, appeared to view Clinton’s statement as waffling on U.S. support for the popular uprising. Mubarak has angered many Egyptians by appearing to prepare the way for his son to succeed him, thereby establishing a family dynasty.
“’Stability’ is a very pernicious word,” he told The New York Times. “Stability at the expense of 30 years of martial law, rigged elections?"
He added: “If they come later and say, as they did in Tunis, ‘We respect the will of the Tunisian people,’ it will be a little late in the day.”
Brookings Institution foreign policy scholar Robert Kagan told Politico that Obama may be running out of time to get on the right side of history.
“My impression is that the administration has been basically closing its eyes and praying that it all works out, because anything else seems too hard and too risky,” he told Politico.
“They can still swing to right side of this thing, but one thing I have been most struck by in meeting with [U.S. officials] at all levels over the past year is that as of yesterday, they have no plan in any direction” for how to deal with the anti-government movements sweeping through the Middle East,” said Kagan.
When CBS News sent an e-mail to Gibbs asking whether the administration still supports the Mubarak regime, he replied: "This isn't about support or opposition to leaders — it's about the support of universal rights of assembly and expression. We criticize actions that restrict those values."
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley described Egypt as an ally and friend of the United States.
One irony of the remarkable human rights movements rippling across the Middle East is that some observers are interpreting it as at least a partial vindication for the pro-democracy policies of former President George W. Bush.
In his “What in the World” segment on CNN this week, host Fareed Zakaria remarked that “there are sprouts of democracy breaking out all over” the Middle East, although he acknowledged that progress is halting and volatile.
Zakaria, a Time magazine editor-at-large, says Middle East democratization began with Iraq, which, although still struggling with religious extremism appears to be establishing a functional, democratically elected, multiparty government and free press.
He also notes that Bahrain and Kuwait have “flirted with reforms.” The region is a hotbed for terror attacks targeting the United States. Many blame the prevalence of extremism on longstanding social, economic and political injustices.
“And, of course, George W. Bush set forth to fix the problem with what he called ‘a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East,’” Zakaria reported.
The former president urged more freedom and democratic governance in the Middle East, noting that democracies were more prosperous and less likely to foment acts of terror.
“Now, if Bush’s vision does come to fruition,” Zakaria said, “will it be because of America’s military pressure, or despite it?
“That’s an interesting debate . . . Democracy comes out of the development of societies, from economic growth, middle-class restlessness and above all the political failures of dictators. It can be helped from abroad. But ultimately it is an organic process when it is successful.
“But give George W. Bush his due,” Zakaria said. “He saw the problem, and he believed that Arabs were not genetically incapable of democracy, and he put America’s moral might behind the great cause of Arab reform.”
On a less optimistic note, however, Zakaria noted the historic pattern in the Middle East is popular uprisings result in dictatorships rather than democracies. It is a pattern he says that dates back to the 1952 overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy by Abdel Nassar, who ruled Egypt with an iron hand until his death in 1970.
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