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The protests and violence aimed at American interests throughout the Middle East have sparked a debate here in the U.S. It's a debate over what sort of engagement the U.S. should have with new governments and political movements in the Middle East. The White House says it is supporting budding democracies there. But critics, including Mitt Romney, say the Obama administration has not shown enough leadership.

And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, others say both parties have it wrong, and that policies put in place by Republicans and Democratic administrations have failed in the Middle East.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says diplomacy can be a risky business, particularly in countries going through difficult transitions. She says the violence in the region now is mainly because extremists are exploiting the inflamed passions over a video that insults the Prophet Mohammed.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: But overwhelmingly, we have found that the people of Egypt, of Libya, of Yemen and Tunisia are not prepared to trade the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob. They want to turn their attention to the future to provide better opportunities for themselves and their children. And they want a strong partnership with the United States and the American people based on mutual interests and mutual respect.

KELEMEN: And the U.S. has to figure out a way to do that, says Michele Dunne, who runs the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

MICHELE DUNNE: This is too important for the United States to give up on, these transitions in the Arab world in general and certainly Egypt in particular. As difficult as it is, the United States really can't just walk away from this. I do think the administration has been more or less on the right track in terms of saying the most important thing we can do to support these democratic transitions is give economic help.

KELEMEN: That's because, like Clinton, Dunne sees the latest violence in the region as an internal struggle with radical Islamists tapping into the frustrations of many. Dunne was speaking to reporters over breakfast this week.

DUNNE: There's obviously a well of resentment there that people can draw on. But I think it's important to see that there are specific people drawing on that well for specific reasons. There's kind of a competition among different kinds of political movements to be the one who really stands up for Islam and stands up to the West for Islam.

KELEMEN: Many analysts say the U.S. is not in the driver's seat. But Michael Singh, a former Bush administration official, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the Obama administration lacks a clear strategy.

MICHAEL SINGH: They have been very hands off. And obviously, they've been dealt a very difficult hand here. The situation is very much in flux, very difficult. And trying to develop a strategy amidst all this change is hard. But at the same time, look, we can't just be reactive.

KELEMEN: Singh says the U.S. needs to be clear about what it wants to see in the region and be more assertive on Iran, in Syria, and promoting better outcomes in political transitions elsewhere.

SINGH: You know, I think they need to take a step back and come up with a more proactive strategy for dealing with what's happening in the Middle East because this turbulence is going to be going on for quite some time, I think.

KELEMEN: But Republicans and Democrats alike are suggesting policies that have failed, says Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute. He says the U.S. invasion of Iraq and aid programs that have propped up authoritarian governments in the past have allowed extremists to gain influence by blaming the West for their problems.

CHRISTOPHER PREBLE: If this engagement has bought us something, what exactly is it? If all of our work, if all of our diplomacy, if all of our military activities over the years can be undone by this silly video, and protests erupt in how many countries now? If that can happen in the span of a few days, what have we really purchased? With all this work, with all this risk and even lives lost, what has it bought us?

KELEMEN: Preble says he is not advocating walking away. He says the U.S. needs to keep diplomatic channels open and promote trade with the region. He just doesn't like the Democratic or Republican approach to continue funneling U.S. taxpayer money into the region or intervene militarily for what he calls amorphous goals.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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