White House Attempts To Navigate Mideast Changes The U.S. is trying to encourage change — without too much turmoil or anti-American backlash. Some foreign policy watchers say U.S. support for the protesters is still too guarded.
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White House Attempts To Navigate Mideast Changes

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White House Attempts To Navigate Mideast Changes

White House Attempts To Navigate Mideast Changes

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Obama administration is trying to navigate the fast-changing realities in the Middle East. Hezbollah, which the U.S. calls a terrorist organization, is emerging as the main political power broker in Lebanon. Protesters in Tunisia toppled an autocrat, and as we just heard, many are taking to the streets in Egypt and calling for the ouster of the president.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on how the U.S. is trying to encourage change without leading to too much turmoil or anti-American backlash.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Some U.S. foreign policy watchers were so worried that the Obama administration wasn't doing enough to support democratic forces in Egypt last year that they formed a bipartisan working group to give the U.S. a wakeup call. One member, Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, says the U.S. is coming around now, but only after protesters took to the streets across Egypt.

Mr. ROBERT KAGAN (Brookings Institution): The illusion that the administration and a lot of people have been clinging to is that there is such a thing as stability in Egypt that they didn't want to shake up. But the days of stability in Egypt are over. Egypt is in transition because Mubarak is old and sick and the people are fed up with 30 years of dictatorship.

KELEMEN: He's been watching U.S. policy evolve as well. Just as protesters were about to topple Tunisia's president, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued what now looks to be a fairly prescient warning to Arab rulers - young people in the region are demanding change.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (U.S. State Department): People have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. They are demanding reforms to make their governments more effective, more responsive and more open.

KELEMEN: When she made those comments in Qatar, she had just visited Yemen, another country now rocked by protests. Clinton heard plenty of complaints while she was there about Yemen's longtime ruler. So by the time she got to Qatar, she wanted to make her point as clearly as she could.

Sec. CLINTON: In too many places, in too many ways, the region's foundations are sinking into the sand.

KELEMEN: This week her top Middle East advisor went to Tunisia to encourage that country to prepare for elections. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman says the challenges facing Tunisia are similar to those facing the entire Arab world: a young population without enough jobs.

Mr. JEFFREY FELTMAN (Assistant Secretary of State): There's a youth bulge. Young people want to feel that they are participating not only in their economic future, but participating in how they're governed, participating in their future. We have often talked publicly as well as privately with leaders across the region about, yes, this is a challenge, this is a tremendous challenge, but it's also an opportunity.

KELEMEN: The U.S. says Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak should see the street protesters as an opportunity as well to implement reforms and respond to the legitimate grievances of the protesters. Marina Ottaway, who runs the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the U.S. support for the protesters is still too guarded.

Ms. MARINA OTTAWAY (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): By and large there is still an attitude of let us not rock the boat too much. These are our friends, these are our allies, and they need to make some changes, but let's not go too far.

KELEMEN: Egypt is a key ally with a powerful Islamist movement in the opposition. So there is some logic to the current U.S. position, Ottaway says, but there's also a problem.

Ms. OTTAWAY: It would make sense if there was not a track record of 30 years of a government that has never introduced any reform. In other words, I think it's a bit disingenuous to appeal to a regime like the Mubarak regime to introduce changes.

KELEMEN: In Lebanon, the U.S. faces a different challenge. Hezbollah, which is on the U.S. terrorism list, is emerging as the dominant force in government. And as Ottaway points out, the U.S. is on the sidelines.

Ms. OTTAWAY: The United States is very much a spectator, because the United States cannot act as a mediator.

KELEMEN: Lebanon is just the latest example, she says, of how the U.S. is losing clout in the region, unable to influence events the way it might want.

Michele Kelemen NPR News, the State Department.

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