WASHINGTON -- In the Obama administration’s most extended comments on the still-unfolding Arab uprisings, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to give a “hopeful but sobering” summation of U.S. policy as it navigates the shoals of Middle East rebellions.
According to a State Department official familiar with the contents of the speech, Clinton will tell a gathering of the U.S.-Islamic World Forum tonight that the uprisings that toppled authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt represent “an inflection point in history” that raises challenges and opportunities for a new American policy of engagement in the region.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, also said Clinton would announce a major speech in the coming weeks by President Obama about the uprisings and the varying U.S. response in each country.
The administration has struggled to calibrate its response to the revolutions that began in December when a vegetable seller in Tunisia set himself on fire to protest that country’s repressive regime. When the unrest spread to Egypt, one of the United States' closest allies, the White House hesitated to publicly denounce President Hosni Mubarak but eventually embraced the protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Since then, the U.S. has joined NATO allies in enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, even as it has issued "can't we all just get along" statements about Bahrain, where an Iranian-friendly Shiite uprising threatens the Sunni monarchy that has sheltered the U.S. Fifth Fleet for decades.
The administration’s reponse has been “fairly conflicted,” said Martin Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution, which sponsors the forum where Clinton will speak tonight. At a time when there is a “quiet crisis” in Saudi Arabia -– which sent troops over a 16-mile causeway to quell the uprising in Bahrain -– and growing violence in Syria, Indyk said it is important for Clinton to set forth “universal values” and a “framework to know where U.S. interests lie.”
The State Department official said Clinton will discuss the grassroots yearning for democracy while making clear the United States does not want to “stage manage” the outcomes. She will laud the movement toward greater openness and freedom while being “realistic about the enormous challenges” posed by a region where unemployment runs high and civil society barely exists.
The official also said that Clinton will reiterate her call to expand engagement in the region beyond political, military and economic elites and to include the young people who have fueled the revolutions using social media tools like Twitter and Facebook. U.S. officials must “get past the usual suspects,” the official said Clinton will say.
Furthermore, while the Bush administration often took a unilateral approach to diplomacy, Clinton is expected to state that the United States is now “in listening mode” and seeks to avoid having “too heavy a footprint” in the new governments that emerge in the region.
“This was a moment of the people’s making,” the official said. “We want to be helpful, but we don’t want to be striding in and telling them what to do.”