Obama Needs To Commit To 'Full Democratic Change'

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In a speech Thursday, President Obama will address the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, talks to Renee Montagne about what President Obama needs to convey to the Arab world.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In his first big speech on the Middle East in Cairo two years ago, President Obama looked to the future. This morning the president will be giving another major address, this one focusing on what is happening right now in the Middle East as uprisings sweep the Arab world. Mr. Obama's speech is expected to emphasize America's support for democracy in the region and offer some tangible help in the form of aid to the two countries that have already toppled longtime autocratic rulers Egypt and Tunisia. He'll also address the question of security in the region, including the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Our next guest will be watching that speech from Doha, Qatar. Shadi Hamid is based in the Middle East for the Brookings Institution.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. SHADI HAMID (Brookings Institution): Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: And in a piece that you wrote for Slate, you argue that the president's response to the uprisings has been a disappointment. How so?

Mr. HAMID: Obama has been slow to support these protests. If we look at pretty much every single Arab country, the U.S. has been behind the curve - whether that was first in Tunisia, Egypt and now Syria. The U.S. does sometimes eventually support democracy, but only at the very last moment. And I think that's largely the perception in the Arab world right now, that why hasn't the U.S. done more to support the aspirations of the people on the streets.

The most obvious case here is Bahrain, which is a close U.S. ally, and the U.S. has still sided with the regime and not done more to pressure the leadership there.

MONTAGNE: Again, in your piece in Slate, you write that any statement about a U.S. commitment to democracy that the president might make will ring hollow. You know, that's a pretty tough challenge. I mean what could, in your opinion, the president say to win over an Arab audience?

Mr. HAMID: Well, I think he has to say that the U.S. is ready and willing to fundamentally reassess policies in the region. I don't think that's going to happen but I think that's what has to happen for Arabs to take him seriously. Because if he goes on talking about how great democracy is and how the U.S. supports that, no one is going to take that seriously because it doesn't reflect the realities on the ground.

Rhetoric is all great but if it's not followed up with actual changes, then it's the same problem we had in the Cairo speech two years ago. It was very well received in the region, the rhetoric was pitch perfect, but where was the follow-up? So I think what's more important than the speech today is the thinking that has gone into it in the past few weeks. Has the Obama administration seriously thought about making a full commitment to democratic change? If they haven't done that, then I think we should be ready for some major disappointments later today.

MONTAGNE: What would that be? What would that full commitment be? This is, again, a very complicated region and there are various interests there. What would those involved in the uprising and others in the Arab world like to see from the U.S.?

Mr. HAMID: The U.S. has to put pressure on these regimes to open up their society. That can include diplomatic pressure. It can include making U.S. aid conditional. And with a number of these countries, there is a, quote, "bilateral relationship," whether it's selling them arms, helping train their army, providing economic assistance. We should find ways to use that leverage in creative ways.

And there's a number of different ideas involved, but a kind of region-wide reform endowment where we put billions of dollars into a pot and try to provide incentives for leaders to change and say, here it is, we have some money ready for this and we're willing to support you economically, but on the condition that you show serious progress on issues that we as Americans care about. I don't think that's asking too much.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. HAMID: Yeah, sure. It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: Shadi Hamid is the director of research at Brookings Institution's Doha Center.

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