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Washington supports change in the Middle East, but not too fast

The Obama administration's strategy to keep a low public profile on the mass protests in the Middle East has served the United States well so far, say experts. But Washington must keep a delicate balance.

Egyptian protesters flee as anti-riot police fire tear gas in Cairo, Egypt, January 28, 2011

The US has voiced cautious support for mass protests in the Middle East

After the fall of the regime in Tunisia and with mass protests sweeping across many other Middle Eastern countries, most notably Egypt, the US has been conspicuously tight-lipped.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama pretty much summed up his administration's public reaction to the dramatic events unfolding in the Middle East by stating that the US "stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ventured a bit further during a press conference with her Jordanian counterpart, urging the Egyptian government not to suppress the protest, but to implement "political, economic and social reforms" in the country.

The US has to tread carefully in a region where Washington while calling for democratic reforms and respect for human fights for decades, has supported and stabilized some of the same authoritarian regimes that are now being challenged. Egypt, for instance is the second-biggest recipient of military aid from Washington after Israel.

The US has been supporting its staunch ally with $1.3 billion (0.9 billion euros) in military assistance per year for decades, strengthening not only its military's capabilities as a potential fighting force in the region, but also its role inside the regime. Highlighting the close ties between Washington and Cairo is the fact that while thousands of Egyptians have been taking to the streets this week, senior Egyptian military leaders were visiting the US capital for annual bilateral talks with their Pentagon colleagues.

Staying an arms length away

President Obama meets with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Oval Office of the White House August 18, 2009

Egypt is a major US ally in the Middle East

Considering the tightrope walk the mass demonstrations against the regime in Egypt and elsewhere represent for the US, the administration has done a good job so far, Middle East analysts tell Deutsche Welle.

"I think that the tone of the Obama administration vis-à-vis Egypt for example has been precisely right," argues Augustus Richard Norton, a professor of international relations at Boston University. "I feel quite strongly that the US needs to keep an arms length from these very impressive demonstrations."

That the Obama administration refrained from issuing strong statements regarding the protests in the Middle East is "very wise," says Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington who served as a senior advisor on Middle Eastern affairs to six Secretaries of State from 1988 to 2003.

"The worst thing in this region is to be perceived as micro-managing and controlling events," adds Miller. "To have American fingerprints on any of these changes is really injurious both for those who hopefully peacefully want to change their political system and for the United States."

Stakes, but little leverage in the outcome

What's more, emphasize the experts, even if it wanted to, the US has little it can do to influence the outcome in Egypt or elsewhere in the region where it is viewed negatively by many.

"You can't control history, you can't control political change," says Miller.

While the US may not have much concrete leverage in shaping the events in the Middle East, it certainly does have concrete material, military and political interests in a region that is vital for US energy supplies.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the events in the Middle East, the one thing Washington definitely doesn't want to happen to the region is its descent into chaos. A prolonged phase of instability and tumult could threaten US economic and political interests. That's why instead of revolutionary upheaval, the US would prefer political changes taking place at a slower pace.

"We do have a stake in evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary reform because usually revolutions carry tremendous uncertainty and are accompanied by profound violence, unless they are idiosyncratic as in Eastern Europe for example where change happens peacefully," argues Miller.

Norton agrees and commends US policymakers for calling for incremental and gradual change.

Indigenous events

"In a country like Egypt for example where the government has worked very very assiduously to incapacitate opposition parties and weaken them, it's going to take a while for a viable set of political institutions to emerge," he says. "If that happens overnight I think we can expect a rather uncertain situation."

Asked to put the mass protests and the role of the US in the Middle East in a broader historical context, both experts dismiss the notion that President George W. Bush's much-touted "forward strategy of freedom," the so-called Greater Middle East Initiative of 2003 has anything to do with the current events.

Students demonstrate, some carrying posters reading RCD get out, in Tunis, January. 27, 2011. Protesters are demanding that the new government not include members of Ben Ali's party, the RCD.

Protests in Tunis are continuing even after the ouster of the former dictator

"Bush certainly did proclaim a freedom agenda, but he didn't go about it very seriously," notes Norton who says he observed this first hand in Egypt when the administration quickly backed off again from its attempt to move the reform process forward. "President Bush acted as though if you presented two Thomas Jefferson aspirin to an authoritarian society on Thursday night, they would wake up Friday morning as democrats."

Miller credits the Bush administration for putting the topic on the agenda, but says they had an ideologically-tinged "cookie cutter approach" and never made much of a practical effort:

"No, the events that are being played out in the streets of Tunis and Cairo and Alexandria, and even in Lebanon to a certain degree, are indigenous, they are home-grown and they have little or nothing to do frankly with America's freedom agenda."

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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