White House Attempts To Navigate Mideast Changes

The Obama administration is trying to navigate new political realities in the Middle East.

Hezbollah, which the U.S. calls a terrorist organization, is emerging as the main political power broker in Lebanon. Protesters toppled an autocrat in Tunisia, and many are taking to the streets in Egypt seemingly trying to do the same.

The U.S. is trying to encourage change — without too much turmoil or anti-American backlash.

Some U.S. foreign policy watchers were so worried that the Obama administration wasn't doing enough to support democratic forces in Egypt last year that they formed a working group to give the U.S. a wake-up call.

One member, Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, says the U.S. is coming around now, but only after protesters took to the streets across Egypt.

"The illusion that a lot of people had been living with, and I think the administration had also accepted, was that there is such a thing as stability in Egypt that you can hold on to. I think the days of stability in Egypt are over. Egypt is in transition," he says.

Kagan has been watching U.S. policy evolve as well. Just as protesters were about to topple Tunisia's president, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued what now looks to be a fairly prescient warning to Arab rulers: Young people in the region are demanding change.

"People have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order," Clinton said during a recent visit to Qatar. "They are demanding reforms to make their governments more effective, more responsive and open."

When she made those comments in Qatar, she had just visited Yemen, another country now rocked by protests. Clinton heard plenty of complaints while she was there about Yemen's longtime ruler. So by the time she got to Qatar, she wanted to make her point as clearly as she could.

"In too many places, in too many ways, the region's foundations are sinking into the sand," she said.

This week, her top Middle East adviser went to Tunisia to encourage that country to prepare for elections. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman says the challenges facing Tunisia are similar to those facing the entire Arab world — a young population, without enough jobs.

"There's a youth bulge," he said. "Young people want to feel that they are participating not only in their economic future, but participating in how they are governed — participating in their future. We have often talked publicly as well as privately with leaders across the region about, yes, this is a challenge, this is a tremendous challenge, but it is also an opportunity."

The U.S. says Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should see the street protests as an opportunity as well — to implement reforms and respond to legitimate grievances of the protesters.

Marina Ottaway, who runs the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the U.S. support for the protesters is still too guarded.

"By and large, there is still an attitude of, let's not rock the boat too much," she says. "These are our friends, these are our allies. They need to make some changes, but let's not go too far."

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