The Monitor's View

From Iran to Libya, will Obama ride this democracy train of protests?

After his role in Egypt's revolution, Obama must lay out a strategy to promote democracy in the Middle East with actions, not just words -- and get the GOP on board, too.

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The rapid ricochet of popular revolts from Egypt and Tunisia into Iran, Libya, Bahrain, Jordan, and Yemen should not let President Obama rest easy.

Rather than merely react to this democratic wave, he must lay out a strategy to promote and guide it. Moral pronouncements are not enough.

To do that, Mr. Obama needs the backing of top Republicans in Congress. A bipartisan approach would create more certainty about US support of people trying to shake off their fears of autocratic rule and then help them make the difficult transition to elected government.

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GOP leaders generally approve of Obama’s actions during the 18-day Egyptian revolution. But suspicions remain about his commitment to democracy promotion. He has long dismissed George W. Bush’s post-9/11 “freedom agenda” for the Middle East. And he has shown a relative disinterest in leaving behind stable democracy in Afghanistan.

During the Egypt crisis, Obama officials appeared hesitant in clearly backing protesters’ demands. This was reflected in mixed messages on whether Hosni Mubarak was a dictator, on the need for Egyptian stability, and then on the actual timing of his removal.

Even now as protests erupt elsewhere, US reaction seems ad hoc.

Obama had tough tone this week toward Iran’s crackdown on Monday’s protests. But he has been far less severe about suppression in Yemen. And the US response to protests in Libya and Bahrain remains unclear, as those revolts are still too new.

Every country is unique, of course, in its conditions for revolution and in ramifications for the rest of the world. “Each country is different, each country has its own traditions,” Obama stated Tuesday.

In Saudi Arabia, there seems less public appetite for democracy than for decent jobs and less government intrusion in daily lives – such as cameras that record traffic violations. The US also has a “realistic” stake in Saudi oil and in preventing the influence of Wahhabi Muslim extremists.

In Iran, however, a grass-roots hatred of clerical rule has led the regime to conduct regular executions of dissidents. And the US wants to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its threats to Israel.

In nearby Iraq, meanwhile, which had its democracy imposed by American force, protests are also taking place following Egypt’s revolution – but not to change the type of government but simply to improve services such as electricity.

Fortunately, ever since the June 2009 protests in Iran, Obama’s rhetoric on freedom and democracy has become stronger, even implicitly backing the Bush doctrine that a democratic Middle East will produce fewer anti-Western terrorists.

While his words more closely align toward those of President Bush, he nonetheless rules out military might to create democracy, as Bush did in Iraq. Instead, his first principle is to “apply moral force to a situation,” with a strong emphasis on nonviolence.

As long as protesters adhere to the same principle, such American talk can have an effect, as seen in the unwillingness of Egypt’s soldiers to shoot peaceful protesters. Selmiyya, selmiyya (“we are peaceful”), Egyptian demonstrators kept chanting.

Sometimes protesters are violent, however, as may have been the case in Libya Tuesday. The collapse of an Arab country into chaos could require outside military intervention, as has often happened in Africa. Obama needs to prepare for such a possibility.

The first concrete US action on democracy promotion since the Egypt revolt was a State Department announcement Tuesday on funding technical ways to keep the Internet open for pro-democracy dissidents. But Obama must do more by increasing funding for democracy promotion in general, including better US diplomacy for such a cause. The Pentagon’s ties to militaries in “friendly” despotic countries also need to include promotion of democratic principles.

The US has a long history of helping others achieve democracy, ever since Woodrow Wilson. It has fought wars for them, funded freedom-loving groups, and twisted dictator’s arms. The world is far better for it.

But an uneven, hesitant policy on pushing democracy is not in the long-term interest of the US. Even Mr. Bush backed off his freedom agenda after electoral setbacks in Lebanon and among the Palestinians helped elevate the influence of Islamists.

American presidents, who serve only up to eight years, may prefer short-term stability. But as Tunisia and Egypt have shown, harsh rulers can only impose stability for so long.

Obama’s experience during the Egypt crisis should embolden him to act more decisively as the Middle East wakes up to its rightful claim to freedom. Together with Congress, he can craft a bipartisan policy that will encourage the protesters and dissuade the dictators from using violence or staying in power.

This is not a time for mixed signals from the US.

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