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Obama Wasn't Blindsided By Middle East Uprisings

Paresh Dave |
February 17, 2011 | 2:00 a.m. PST

Executive Producer

Tanks rolled into Bahrain's capital early Thursday. (Via Twitter)
Tanks rolled into Bahrain's capital early Thursday. (Via Twitter)

While President George W. Bush shoved democracy down the throats of authoritarian governments in Iraq and Afghanistan with physical force, President Barack Obama has chosen to use only moral force in promoting peaceful protests of not-so-democratic regimes in the Middle East.

The president's hands-off approach is welcome, but his administration's failure to plan for recent uprises through the Middle East has left America looking confused and slow to respond.

This is especially true considering a revelation that Obama did know last year that the Middle East was ripe for revolution, according to a N.Y. Times report published late Wednesday citing unnamed sources speaking about a secret 18-page document.

In a Newsweek cover story, conservative scholar and British historian Niall Ferguson scolded Obama for not forming a game plan for the Middle East. By going back-and-forth in its support of President Hosni Mubarak early in the Egyptian uprising, America showed that it wasn't at all prepared. The secret report that national security experts put together for Obama last year would tell a different story.

Either way, it seems Obama has entered dangerous middle-ground again with Bahrain.

Four days of protests in Bahrain this week have seen at least five deaths by way of police action. The opposition party walked out of the country's parliament indefinitely. And the health minister is resigning because he's not happy with the government sending tanks in to scare protestors off the streets. Thousands more were injured in Egypt two weeks ago when the Obama administration couldn't decide whether to label Mubarak as a dictator or not.

Would Obama be better off going beyond simple calls for Middle East regimes to respect peaceful protests? Would immediate repudiation of Bahrain's ruling Al-Khalifa party on Monday have sparked a rapid increase in the number of protestors and caused the government to stand down a bit?

Most experts on international relations praised Obama's efforts with Egypt. After all, the primary mission of the protestors—to see Mubarak exit the presidential palace—did get accomplished. They say Obama handled a balancing act well. But why can't he just come out with a comprehensive plan? He could acknowledge unrest in a handful of countries and take the lead in proposing solutions that maintain everyone's interests as much as possible. If he's all about bringing all the sides to one discussion table, why is a wait-and-see approach outranking a proactive policy of negotiation with each country's stakeholders? He's urged governments facing revolts to get ahead of the game while offering them little public assistance to do so.

The Christian Science Monitor's editorial board on Wednesday wrote, “Rather than merely react to this democratic wave, [Obama] must lay out a strategy to promote and guide it. Moral pronouncements are not enough.”

It's easier to respect those who take a stance one way or another. Obama can't tip-toe the line of democracy for much longer and expect to be widely praised on the international level.

“Obama’s experience during the Egypt crisis should embolden him to act more decisively as the Middle East wakes up to its rightful claim to freedom,” the Monitor's editors continued. “Together with Congress, he can craft a bipartisan policy that will encourage the protesters and dissuade the dictators from using violence or staying in power.”

Obama's budget proposal for next year offers little hope. Reports foreignpolicy.com:

One of the largest proposed cuts came from the economic support fund, a program to support countries moving toward democracy, which would receive $5.97 billion in fiscal 2012 -- $1.84 billion less than last year's request.

A leading protestor in Yemen told the Washington Post that he's sure the U.S. will back them fully.

"The United States now knows it is on the right track by siding with the people, not their current regimes,” Tsawakkol Karman said. “In this way, the U.S. will regain the influence it has lost in the Arab world."

About three years ago, Hillary Clinton said she saw no evidence that Obama had any foreign policy expertise. Now paired together, can't they come up with something more unequivocal?

Reach executive producer Paresh Dave here. Follow him on Twitter: @peard33.



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