Obama Resets Arab World

Posted: May 20, 2011 in HuT - America, News About Hizb ut-Tahrir

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Thursday, 12 May 2011 01:19

WASHINGTON — For President Obama, the killing of Osama bin Laden is more than a milestone in America’s decade-long battle against terrorism. It is a chance to recast his response to the upheaval in the Arab world after a frustrating stretch in which the stalemate in Libya, the murky power struggle in Yemen and the brutal crackdown in Syria have dimmed the glow of the Egyptian revolution.

Administration officials said the president was eager to use Bin Laden’s death as a way to articulate a unified theory about the popular uprisings from Tunisia to Bahrain — movements that have common threads but also disparate features, and have often drawn sharply different responses from the United States.

The first sign of this “reset” could come as early as next week, when Mr. Obama plans to give a speech on the Middle East in which he will seek to put Bin Laden’s death in the context of the region’s broader political transformation. The message, said one of his deputy national security advisers, Benjamin J. Rhodes, will be that “Bin Laden is the past; what’s happening in the region is the future.”

“The spotlight is understandably always on whatever country things are going worst in,” Mr. Rhodes said. “What’s important is to step back and say, ‘The trajectory of change is in the right direction.’ ”

Still, although Bin Laden’s killing may provide a rare moment of clarity, it has less obvious implications for American strategic calculations in the region. Some administration officials argue that the heavy blow to Al Qaeda gives the United States the chance to be more forward-leaning on political change because it makes Egypt, Syria and other countries less likely to tip toward Islamic extremism.

But other senior officials note that the Middle East remains a complicated place: the death of Al Qaeda’s leader does not erase the terrorist threat in Yemen, while countries like Bahrain are convulsed by sectarian rivalries that never had much to do with Bin Laden’s radical message. The White House said it was still working through the policy implications country by country.

Even before the Bin Laden raid, officials said, Mr. Obama was casting about for ways to tie together events in the Middle East. White House officials had weighed a speech in which the president would link the upheaval to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations — a process that seems, if anything, even more paralyzed after the recent agreement between the Palestinian Authority and the militant group Hamas.

Given that, officials said, the current plan is for the president to keep his focus on the broader changes in the Arab world, rather than to present a specific new plan for reviving the peace talks.

From the earliest days of protests in Tunisia, Mr. Obama has balanced his desire to paint an overarching Arab narrative with the need to evaluate each country on its own terms. He has juggled the same idealistic and realistic impulses that have marked his approach to domestic issues.

Interviews with several administration officials suggest that the tensions in his Middle East policy are less the product of a debate among advisers than of a tug of war within the president himself.

In Egypt, for example, Mr. Obama’s advisers say he decided to push for President Hosni Mubarak’s exit early on, against the advice of aides, after watching Mr. Mubarak’s defiant televised address on a screen in the White House Situation Room. Even then, they said, he feared that the dreams of young activists, like the Google executive Wael Ghonim, would be let down by the fitful transition to democracy.

One of his aides said that when he asked Mr. Obama to predict the outcome, the president said: “What I want is for the kids on the street to win and for the Google guy to become president. What I think is that this is going to be long and hard.”

That has proved even more true in Libya, where Mr. Obama reluctantly threw his support behind a NATO-led bombing campaign that has bogged down. Libya has become a major preoccupation for him, necessitating daily meetings, in which officials said he was being briefed on the targets for airstrikes and on diplomatic efforts to pry Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from power.

Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser, said Mr. Obama was as deeply immersed in all the Arab countries undergoing political upheaval. “The president, in each of these cases, has really been the central intellectual force in these decisions, in many cases, designing the approaches,” he said.

At night in the family residence, an adviser said, Mr. Obama often surfs the blogs of experts on Arab affairs or regional news sites to get a local flavor for events. He has sounded out prominent journalists like Fareed Zakaria of Time magazine and CNN and Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist at The New York Times, regarding their visits to the region. “He is searching for a way to pull back and weave a larger picture,” Mr. Zakaria said.

Mr. Obama has ordered staff members to study transitions in 50 to 60 countries to find precedents for those under way in Tunisia and Egypt. They have found that Egypt is analogous to South Korea, the Philippines and Chile, while a revolution in Syria might end up looking like Romania’s.

This deliberate, almost scholarly, approach is in keeping with Mr. Obama’s style, one that has frustrated people who believe he is too slow and dispassionate. But officials said it also reflected his own impatience, two years after he gave a speech in Cairo intended to mend America’s relations with the Muslim world, that many of these countries remained mired in corruption.

“The way he personally talks about corruption, he understands the frustration,” Mr. Rhodes said.

In Mr. Obama’s memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” he describes how his father went home to Kenya and butted heads with corrupt Kenyan bureaucrats, ending up jobless and embittered. He also watched as his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, struggled with a culture of bribery in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Mr. Obama’s personal experience, his aides say, has left him with a keen sense of the limits of the American role. In Syria, for example, the administration has imposed sanctions on a few senior members of the government, but not on President Bashar al-Assad. Nor has Mr. Obama called for Mr. Assad to step down, as he did with Colonel Qaddafi. Officials said they doubted that such a move would make any difference, given the weak leverage the United States has with Syria.

“He’s very realistic,” said Denis R. McDonough, a deputy national security adviser. “When you’re president, you don’t just get to choose among the attractive options. You choose as it relates to the impact on national security interests of the country.”

NYT

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