In a speech earlier this week to the U.S.-Islamic World Forum Secretary of State Hillary Clinton again exposed tensions at the core of the Obama administration's response to popular uprisings for human dignity throughout the Middle East and North Africa. These inconsistencies leave human rights and democracy activists in the region wondering which side the U.S. government is on, and how far it is prepared to support a new vision for a region grounded in democratic government, respect for the rule of law and human rights.
The general theory of the administration's approach to the region is clear enough: denying the legitimate rights and aspirations of people throughout the region is not a sustainable way for governments to rule. In her speech secretary Clinton spoke of "exposed myths ... that governments can hold on to power without responding to their people's aspirations or respecting their rights."
Problems come when the administration is required to apply its theory in practice in the form of specific policies designed to deal with the challenges presented by specific country situations. Here the speech is laced with caveats and qualifications: will the Arab spring result in lasting reforms? Well, "these questions can only be answered by the people and leaders of the Middle East and North Africa themselves. The United States certainly does not have all the answers..." Hardly a ringing endorsement of the reform agenda.
A particular challenge for the administration at the present time comes in Bahrain where the administration has urged reform from the ruling al-Khalifa family, but Bahrain's rulers, apparently under pressure from their near Saudi neighbors, have chosen repression, firing live ammunition on demonstrators in the street and now detaining human rights leaders and closing down independent newspapers.
The U.S. government has expressed concern and alarm about this, but at a time when repression in Bahrain is escalating Secretary Clinton chose to point out that "that a one-sized-fits-all approach doesn't make sense in such a diverse region at such a fluid time ... we have a decades long friendship with Bahrain that we expect to continue long into the future." Secretary Clinton has a track record of effusive and unwarranted praise for Bahrain's supposed progress on human rights and democracy. In December 2010 she praised it as a "model partner" and admonished a questioner at a public forum who pointed out that Bahrain was experiencing some "declines" in its human rights conditions to "see the glass a half full," not half empty.
Seeking to promote universal principles, and to support those around the world who, often at enormous personal risk, stand up for them is not an approach that can be turned on and off according to specific country situations. Failing to stand up for universal principles in one country weakens U.S. support for those same principles in other countries. Enemies of these principles observe such vacillation and feel emboldened; they hear U.S. criticisms of their appalling human rights records and cry double standards.
Uprisings throughout the Middle East in countries allied with the United States and others will continue to test this administration's commitment to universal principles it claims to hold dear. Speeches and policy statements make the case that promoting human rights and democracy serves U.S. interests and point to the dire consequences of failing to respond to the people's "long denied aspirations for dignity," but policies in specific country situations, like Bahrain, continue to fall short.
This is not to suggest that the U.S. government can or should impose reform, democracy or human rights on recalcitrant countries; but a consistent commitment to core principles that the administration claims to see as essential to human dignity should always be a part of the U.S. government's relationships with other governments, friend or foe, host to a vital U.S. naval base or major oil supplier. President Obama will have an opportunity to make clear how the U.S. government will translate its principles into policies when he makes his promised speech on the region in the coming weeks.