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.
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."
Cables Show How U.S. Privately Pressured Egypt
WASHINGTON — It was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s first meeting as secretary of state with President Hosni Mubarak, in March 2009, and the Egyptians had an odd request: Mrs. Clinton should not thank Mr. Mubarak for releasing an opposition leader from prison because he was ill.
In fact, a confidential diplomatic cable signed by the American ambassador to Egypt, Margaret Scobey, advised Mrs. Clinton to avoid even mentioning the name of the man, Ayman Nour, even though his imprisonment in 2005 had been condemned worldwide, not least by the Bush administration.
The cable is among a trove of dispatches made public by the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks that paint a vivid picture of the delicate dealings between the United States and Egypt, its staunchest Arab ally. They show in detail how diplomats repeatedly raised concerns with Egyptian officials about jailed dissidents and bloggers, and kept tabs on reports of torture by the police.
But they also reveal that relations with Mr. Mubarak warmed up because President Obama played down the public “name and shame” approach of the Bush administration. A cable prepared for a visit by Gen. David H. Petraeus in 2009 said the United States, while blunt in private, now avoided “the public confrontations that had become routine over the past several years.”
This balancing of private pressure with strong public support for Mr. Mubarak has become increasingly tenuous in recent days. Throngs of angry Egyptians have taken to the streets and the White House, worried about being identified with a reviled regime, has challenged the president publicly.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama praised Mr. Mubarak as a partner but said he needed to undertake political and economic reforms. In an interview posted on YouTube, Mr. Obama said neither the police nor the protesters should resort to violence. “It is very important,” he added, “that people have mechanisms in order to express legitimate grievances.”
It is not known what Mrs. Clinton said to Mr. Mubarak in their first meeting, at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik. But she set the public tone afterward, when she was asked by an Arab television journalist about a State Department report critical of Egypt’s human rights record.
“We hope that it will be taken in the spirit in which it is offered, that we all have room for improvement,” Mrs. Clinton said, adding that Mr. Mubarak and his wife, Suzanne, were friends of her family, and that it was up to the Egyptian people to decide the president’s future.
The cables, which cover the first year of the Obama presidency, leave little doubt about how valuable an ally Mr. Mubarak has been, detailing how he backed the United States in its confrontation with Iran, played mediator between Israel and the Palestinians and supported Iraq’s fledgling government, despite his opposition to the American-led war.
Privately, Ambassador Scobey pressed Egypt’s interior minister to free three bloggers, as well as a Coptic priest who performed a wedding for a Christian convert, according to one of her cables to Washington. She also asked that three American pro-democracy groups be granted formal permission to operate in the country, a request the Egyptians rejected.
However effusive the Americans were about Mr. Mubarak in public, the cables offered a less flattering picture of Egypt’s first lady, Suzanne Mubarak. During a visit to the Sinai, one reported, she commandeered a bus that had been bought with money from the United States Agency for International Development and that had been meant to carry children to school.
Egyptian state security was concerned enough about American activities in Sinai, according to another cable, that it surreptitiously recorded a meeting between diplomats and members of a local council.
Yet many more of the cables describe collaboration between the United States and Egypt. In her 2009 visit, Mrs. Clinton was trying to revive the moribund peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Mr. Mubarak was central to this: the cables detail his efforts to broker a cease-fire between Israelis and the militant group Hamas in Gaza, as well as American pressure on him to curb the smuggling of weapons to Hamas from Egypt through tunnels.
Mrs. Clinton was also laying out Mr. Obama’s rationale for engaging Iran — an overture, the cables report, that Mr. Mubarak predicted would fail. A May 2009 cable before Mr. Mubarak’s first visit to the Obama White House noted that Egyptian officials told a visiting American diplomat, Dennis B. Ross, that “we should prepare for confrontation through isolation.”
Like other Arab leaders, Mr. Mubarak is depicted in the cables as obsessed with Iran, which he told American diplomats was extending its tentacles from “the Gulf to Morocco” through proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah. He views these groups — particularly Hamas, a “brother” of Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood — as a direct threat to his own rule.
In a meeting with General Petraeus on June 29, 2009, Mr. Mubarak said the Iranian government wanted to establish “pockets” of influence inside Egypt, according to a cable. General Petraeus told him the United States was responding to similar fears among Persian Gulf states by deploying more Patriot missiles and upgrading its F-16 fighter jets stationed in the region.
Despite obvious American sympathy for Mr. Mubarak’s security concerns, there is little evidence that the diplomats believed the president, now 82, was at risk of losing his grip on power. The May 2009 cable noted that riots over bread prices had broken out in Egypt in 2008 for the first time since 1977. And it said the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood had prompted the government to resort to “heavy-handed tactics against individuals and groups.”
But the cable, again signed by Ambassador Scobey, portrayed Mr. Mubarak as the ultimate survivor, a “tried and true realist” who would rather “let a few individuals suffer than risk chaos for society as a whole.”
“During his 28-year rule,” the cable said, “he survived at least three assassination attempts, maintained peace with Israel, weathered two wars in Iraq and post-2003 regional instability, intermittent economic downturns, and a manageable but chronic internal terrorist threat.”
Another cable, dated March 2009, offered a pessimistic analysis of the prospects for the “April 6 Movement,” a Facebook-based group of mostly young Egyptians that has received wide attention for its lively political debate and helped mobilize the protests that have swept Egypt in the last two days. Leaders of the group had been jailed and tortured by the police. There were also signs of internal divisions between secular and Islamist factions, it said.
The United States has defended bloggers with little success. When Ambassador Scobey raised several arrests with the interior minister, he replied that Egypt did not infringe on freedom of the press, but that it must respond when “people are offended by blogs.” An aide to the minister told the ambassador that The New York Times, which has reported on the treatment of bloggers in Egypt, was “exaggerating the blogger issue,” according to the cable.
American diplomats also cast a wide net to gather information on police brutality, the cables show. Through contacts with human rights lawyers, the embassy follows numerous cases, and raised some with the Interior Ministry. Among the most harrowing, according to a cable, was the treatment of several members of a Hezbollah cell detained by the police in late 2008.
Lawyers representing the men said they were subjected to electric shocks and sleep deprivation, which reduced them to a “zombie state.” They said the torture was more severe than what they normally witnessed.
To the extent that Mr. Mubarak has been willing to tolerate reforms, the cable said, it has been in areas not related to public security or stability. For example, he has given his wife latitude to campaign for women’s rights and against practices like female genital mutilation and child labor, which are sanctioned by some conservative Islamic groups.
Still, Mr. Mubarak generally views broader reforms as an invitation to extremism. “We have heard him lament the results of earlier U.S. efforts to encourage reform in the Islamic world,” said a cable, noting that he often invoked the shah of Iran — a secular leader who came under pressure from Washington, only to be replaced by an even more repressive, hostile government.
Even the private encounters with Mr. Mubarak have layers of sensitivity. While Mrs. Clinton was advised to steer clear of mentioning Ayman Nour, the cable signed by Ambassador Scobey suggested she might broach the topic of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American author and critic of Mr. Mubarak who fled Egypt after being found guilty of defaming the country.
“If you have any one-on-one opportunity with President Mubarak,” the ambassador wrote, “you may wish to suggest that annulling these cases and allowing him to return to Egypt would also be well received by the administration.”
It is not clear whether Mrs. Clinton did so.
ETA: Bolding does not necessarily = endorsement.