Obama's Rhetoric Evolves With Democracy Protests

The White House has had to tread carefully in dealing with unrest in Egypt. The president's message has evolved with events and who his words have been crafted for.

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And we heard there President Obama addressing the protests in Egypt at that news conference. The message from his administration has evolved since the protests began in Tunisia and then Egypt last month.

As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the White House is recalibrating its role in encouraging dictatorships to move toward democracy.

ARI SHAPIRO: Over the last month, it sometimes sounded as though the Obama administration was writing and rewriting its Egypt playbook on the fly. In late January, Secretary of State Clinton took a swing at the situation in Cairo and missed the ball.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable.

SHAPIRO: Two days later, Vice President Biden made a statement about President Hosni Mubarak on PBS that he would soon regret.

Vice President JOE BIDEN: I would not refer to him as a dictator.

SHAPIRO: In the days after those American assurances, President Mubarak outraged his people by promising to remain in office until September. President Obama did not immediately reject that plan.

Pres. OBAMA: What's needed right now are concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people.

SHAPIRO: The administration's statements on Egypt tried to walk a fine line, supporting democracy without throwing an American ally under the bus. As a result, the message often sounded muddled. Finally, Mubarak left. And on Friday, President Obama made his most unequivocal statement to date.

Pres. OBAMA: For Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day.

SHAPIRO: Looking back, President Obama suggested today that he would not have done anything differently.

Pres. OBAMA: History will end up recording that at every juncture in the situation in Egypt, that we were on the right side of history.

SHAPIRO: Now, protests are unfolding in other countries. In Bahrain, police fired tear gas at people marching in the street.

(Soundbite of protest)

SHAPIRO: In Yemen, demonstrators carried banners calling for regime change.

(Soundbite of protest)

SHAPIRO: And Iranian protesters demanded that the supreme leader step down.

(Soundbite of protest)

SHAPIRO: The White House is trying to apply the lessons it learned in the Cairo protests to countries that might now be on a similar path. Michele Dunne is a Mideast specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Ms. MICHELE DUNNE (Mideast Specialist, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): It's a remarkable turnaround. They're sort of coming out of the box now speaking up on protests in every single country.

SHAPIRO: Over the weekend, President Obama told several world leaders in phone calls that, quote, democracy will bring more, not less, stability to the region. And in his news conference today, the president attacked Iran for trying to suppress protests there.

Pres. OBAMA: You've got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt, when in fact they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran.

SHAPIRO: The Carnegie Endowment's Michele Dunne says this goes beyond the president's rhetoric on Cairo.

Ms. DUNNE: They are suddenly sort of embracing the idea of change and reform in this region in a way they really have not, up till now.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. missed that opportunity when Iran's 2009 revolution fizzled. And even during revolts in Tunisia last month, President Obama limited his comments in the State of the Union to one short passage.

Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation says: While the White House is publicly siding with the people in the streets, there's also behind the scenes outreach to the rulers of those countries.

Mr. STEVE CLEMONS (American Strategy Program Founder, New America Foundation): When you see Admiral Mike Mullen in the region right now, what he's trying to do is to tell these very nervous rulers in the region that we still have common concerns and core interests, that we want to work with them. But when their own social contracts between those who are running a state and those who are citizens of it erodes, the United States can't save these governments.

SHAPIRO: He says the United States has to keep its own interests in mind, too, by engaging everyone in the country - not just the oil sheiks and strongmen, but the protesters and opposition parties as well. In some places that's easy. The U.S. doesn't much care whether it alienates Iran's rulers. But in Yemen, the U.S. depends on the government to support American counterterrorism operations.

In Bahrain, the U.S. runs a major naval facility with the king's blessing. Alienating those leaders could hurt American interests. But if those rulers follow the path of Egypt's president, their views won't matter much at all.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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