US on Arab Spring: Inching Forward, Slapping Wrists, Nudging Dictators

Jun 16, 2011 10:00am

From ABC's Kirit Radia at the State Department: As the Arab Spring turns to summer, the temperature and the tensions have turned up throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Meanwhile back in Washington, the Obama administration is gently, and sometimes reluctantly, nudging its position forward on the uprisings throughout the region. President Obama and his team have at times struggled to tailor their policies for each country and the nuanced stand continued to shift over the past week. It would be impossible to generalize US policy towards the uprisings, other than to say that they are in favor of change (read: Libya), except when they sort of are (like in Syria), or when they are not (Exhibit A: Bahrain). In the past week criticism of Syria’s leader slightly increased, as did support for Libya’s opposition and efforts to guide Yemen’s president from power. Support for Bahrain’s leadership, however, remained rock solid. On Monday the State Department inched forward in its criticism of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying that after the military’s bloody crackdown on civilians over the weekend it is “increasingly clear that he has no intention of reforming.” Still, Washington has yet to call outright for Assad’s departure, sticking instead with the line first uttered by President Obama months after the uprising began. “The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy.  President Assad now has a choice:  He can lead that transition, or get out of the way,” the president finally said on May 19 in what was billed as a major address in response to the Arab Spring uprisings. The US has been limited in its visibility into Syria. Ambassador Robert Ford, who only arrived in the country in January, has been denied meetings with government officials since late May.Instead, the US has relied on conversations with opposition figures and the reporting of countries with better insight into what is happening in the country. According to a senior administration official, Secretary Clinton of State Hillary Clinton used much of her meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last Thursday in Abu Dhabi to discuss the situation inside Syria. On Tuesday Secretary Clinton accused Iran of playing a role in the violence in Syria, saying in a statement that “Iran is supporting the Asad regime’s vicious assaults on peaceful protesters and military actions against its own cities.”  That same statement drew parallels to Iran’s brutal crackdown nearly two years ago on protestors following the 2009 election. At the time the Obama administration, wary to back the opposition publicly for fear the support could be used to justify an even harsher punishments, drew criticism for its muted reaction as government forces attacked peaceful demonstrators in the streets. Perhaps seeking to make up for lost time, last week the United States slapped sanctions on a second round of Iranian entities, including the police and Basiji thugs, for their role in the 2009 violence. In Yemen, the Obama administration was also reluctant to call for the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key if somewhat unreliable ally in the war on al Qaeda terrorists which have targeted the United States from Yemeni soil. But Washington has changed its tune in recent weeks as Saleh has repeatedly embarrassed the United States and Gulf countries who helped broker deal with the opposition that Saleh repeatedly agreed to sign and then did not. Now, with Saleh seeking medical treatment in Saudi Arabia following an attack that left him seriously injured, the United States is again pushing his interim replacement, Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to make the deal. Still, in a sign that the United States remains worried about what comes next in Yemen, the CIA is reportedly building a base in the region from which it could fly its drones over Yemen to continue strikes against terror targets, just in case whatever government or chaos follows Saleh’s rule is uncooperative with the US counter-terror efforts. The Obama administration’s harshest criticism, however, remains reserved for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhfi. It has been an easy position for the United States to take, given Gadhafi’s Arab neighbors were also eager to try and push the mercurial leader out. Last week, Secretary Clinton expressed confidence in the mission to oust Gadhafi will be successful. (No matter what the UN resolution said about a narrow mission to protect civilians, it’s become clear the US and others believe that goal will only be accomplished when he leaves power and they appear determined to continue until that happens.) “We have very good reason to believe that time is on our side, so long as we sustain the pressure,” Clinton told reporters last week. Still, the United States has yet to formally recognize the Libyan opposition, known as the Transitional National Council, based in the eastern city of Benghazi. Secretary Clinton has met several times with the TNC’s leadership and took an incremental, if important, step forward last week by declaring the group “the” legitimate interlocutor for the Libyan people. (Previously they had said the group was only “an” interlocutor.) Ironically, as tough as the battle for control with Libya has been, President Obama faces a more immediate fight in Congress over his ability to continue the fight. Some Republican leaders, with key liberal Democratic allies, have said the American military involvement in Libya is in contravention of the War Powers Act, which requires Congressional approval for missions longer than 60 days. House Speaker John Boehner has given the president until Friday to comply. That hasn’t been lost on Gadhafi, who last week wrote a letter to Congress thanking them for their pressure on President Obama. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has held out hope that reform can come to Bahrain, where the US has a strategic alliance with the royal family. The tiny Gulf nation is also home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, underscoring Washington’s interest in maintaining the status quo there. Despite what, by all accounts, was a brutal crackdown on protestors and opposition figures that continues today with the interrogation and prosecution of those involved, Bahrain’s Crown Prince was feted during a visit to Washington last week. The American University-educated prince is considered a reformer within the royal family and a key figure in reconciliation talks with the opposition. US officials say they hope he’ll be able to convince the country’s rulers to make necessary reforms in order to stay in power. As cautious as the Obama administration has appeared in public statements, it has continued to support grassroots democracy activists behind the scenes. In countries where governments have become increasingly sophisticated in how they track and pursue activists online, the United States has quietly ramped up efforts to train and equip activists to evade detection from government dragnets and to communicate and organize safely online. A senior administration official tells ABC News that nowhere has this been deployed more than in Syria. That the United States is taking bold steps to usher regional dictators from power only through quiet means is a sign not only of the complexity of the region, but that it does not want to be seen as the backers of the Arab Spring.

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