Revisiting U.S. Commitment To The Middle East

Two years ago on May 19, President Obama called for a new chapter in American diplomacy, promising to make it a top priority to support democracy and human rights in a changing Middle East. Some experts say that the U.S. has failed to live up to that commitment in places like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. The conflict in Syria has also opened a darker chapter in the Arab uprisings.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Just two years ago today, the effort to change regimes in many parts of the Islamic world was just beginning. And President Obama was at the U.S. State Department talking about a new chapter in American diplomacy.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support the transitions to democracy. That effort begins in Egypt and Tunisia where the stakes are high.

MARTIN: Some experts now say that the Obama administration has not lived up to its lofty rhetoric. The transitions have not gone smoothly, the U.S. seems to have lost its footing and the conflict in Syria is casting a long shadow over the region.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Amy Hawthorne was working at the State Department when President Obama went there to instruct U.S. diplomats to support political and economic reforms across the Middle East and North Africa.

OBAMA: Today, I want to make it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.

KELEMEN: This was meant to be a major change in policy but the U.S. had unrealistic expectations, says Hawthorne, now at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. Aid has been limited, mainly due to U.S. budget constraints and she says the U.S. has had a tough time navigating relations with major players like the Islamist government in Egypt, headed by Mohammed Morsi who has taken some decidedly undemocratic steps in recent months.

AMY HAWTHORNE: I think the United States and other actors got discouraged and pulled back and became frustrated and maybe a bit unsure about what to do. It's much easier, of course, to promote democratic change when that change is clearly unfolding. And its much harder to do that when the process is more confusing, it's more chaotic and when its hit roadblocks.

KELEMEN: And there have been many roadblocks, among them the legal cases in Egypt against U.S. and Egyptian non-governmental groups, and their employees who had been promoting democracy and human rights.

HAWTHORNE: The whole experience of the NGO crisis and what happened to the United States and how we responded I think has really affected in a negative way our approach to this issue actually throughout the region. It's made us very gun-shy and very hesitant and decided to really pull back, I think, rather than sort of double down.

KELEMEN: This is not the first time the U.S. has talked about democracy promotion but hasn't followed through, focusing instead on U.S. security needs in the region. Think back to the Bush administration's so called Freedom Agenda.

But Michele Dunne of the Atlantic Council says the region is changing and it's in U.S. interest to step up to what she calls these historic opportunities and challenges.

MICHELE DUNNE: For the countries that are trying to democratize, like Egypt, if they fail to do that, if they fail to democratize, the other options are some form of military authoritarianism or Islamist authoritarian whether of a Brotherhood or a Salafi variation. These are dark outcomes, both for the countries themselves and for U.S. interests in the region.

KELEMEN: The U.S. can't control the outcomes, Dunne says, but the Obama administration could do more diplomatically to encourage political and economic reforms and offer more incentives with trade deals and international aid. Meanwhile, the whole region is watching with concern as the conflict in Syria spills across borders.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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