What Should The U.S. Do To Encourage Democracy?

The protests in Egypt pose a challenge to the Obama administration. U.S. officials need to support the rights of protesters, who are demanding things the U.S. supports: freedom of speech and more responsive governments. But as leaders in the region start listening to their people, they might also be more reluctant to support other U.S. policies in the region.

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Events in Egypt have been moving faster than people can keep up with and that includes policy makers. The Obama administration is an awkward position - it needs to support the protesters who are demanding the kind of rights Americans take for granted, but if leaders in the Mideast start actually doing what their people want they might reject American policies.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The U.S. never really had pliable clients it could boss around in the Arab world, says William Quandt a former Carter administration official who teaches at the University of Virginia. But now the limits of American power are becoming more clear, whether it's in Egypt or Tunisia or in Iraq.

Professor WILLIAM QUANDT (Politics, University of Virginia): So the perception now, and for several years, is that the Americans are on their way out. They've learned their lesson in Iraq that they can't do everything. They brought to power a government that's going to end up being a closer ally to Iran than they ever wanted. And that regional forces are going to reassert themselves.

KELEMEN: You see this is Turkey, he says, which has a more activist foreign policy now and in Lebanon, where a pro-western government recently collapsed. Quandt points out that the U.S. couldn't get Palestinians back to the negotiating table or convince Israelis to freeze settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

Prof. QUANDT: One of the messages, I think, Americans need to absorb is that if there ever was an American moment in the Middle East, it's in the past.

KELEMEN: The ground is shifting, says another Middle East expert Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress.

Mr. BRIAN KATULIS (Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress): But it's a landscape that I think won't change rapidly overnight. Even if you have a new government in Egypt or a brand new set of faces in Tunisia or other countries, I think job number one of those new governments will be responding to what their citizens were protesting over, which is the economic concerns at home and the political reform. And that, I think, could take a very long time.

KELEMEN: Katulis thinks it's time for the U.S. to come up with a real strategy in the Middle East, which deals with the social and political unrest in a more serious way. U.S. policy has been far too dependent on the American military presence in the region, he says. University of Maryland Professor Shibley Telhami also calls this a time for reflection.

Professor SHIBLEY TELHAMI (University of Maryland): We're kind of reacting to events - what's next, how do we deal with it, how do we go about doing business as we have done it always. And I think we should be doing far more thinking about the broader strategic picture and what America's interests are and how to make them more harmonious to regional aspirations.

KELEMEN: Gone are the days, he says, when the U.S. could ask Arab leaders to support policies that are unpopular in their countries.

Prof. TELHAMI: Each one of these rulers who is close to the U.S. is going to think twice before they go against the public.

KELEMEN: Telhami says many Arab leaders once felt they could withstand the anger of their people more easily than U.S. anger. But Telhami says that equation is changing as social unrest spreads.

Still Quandt of the University of Virginia is not in panic mode about what's happening in Egypt or Tunisia.

Prof. QUANDT: Both regimes will be healthier and better regimes for their own people. And ultimately we have a good opportunity to have good relations with them. But they're going to be more independent minded than their predecessors.

KELEMEN: And the U.S., he says, will have to have much more modest expectations of what it can achieve in the Middle East.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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