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The Monitor's View

In Stage 2 of the Arab spring, Obama faces tougher choices

Use of armed force in Libya and Bahrain, the question of a no-fly zone, as well as the role of oil, make the choices for Obama much tougher than during Egypt's revolution.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / March 15, 2011



The first blush of the Arab spring may be over – for protesters and for US policymakers. In retrospect, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt looked almost easy. But from Libya to Bahrain, the outcomes appear less certain and the choices before President Obama and the West are getting much trickier.

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Remember how difficult it seemed for the United States to decide how to respond to Egypt? The Obama administration weighed backing a longtime ally, albeit a dictator, against supporting a democratic revolution that might well be hijacked by extreme Islamists.

It correctly, and finally, chose the democratic revolution, and now US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is visiting Egypt and Tunisia, giving American support for democratic transitions.

But a new phase in the Arab uprisings involves the use of force, and that enormously complicates matters. In Libya, rebels are urging a no-fly zone as Muammar Qaddafi’s armed forces roll back rebel gains with heavy artillery backed up by air power.

The international community is split over the zone, with some players such as Germany and the US worried about being sucked into another war in a Muslim country. Of particular concern to the US is overextending an already stretched military. Nearly two-thirds of the American public say the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting, and in a new Pew poll, 63 percent say the US does not have a responsibility to act in Libya.

And yet, left unchecked, the dictator’s advances against the rebels send a signal to entrenched rulers in the rest of the region that armed forces can save an authoritarian regime. That message invites violent repression of peaceful uprisings and a lost chance to democratize much of the Middle East. Indeed, longtime autocrats in Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia – allies of the US – are following such a course.

Today the government in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain, where the US has a military base, declared a state of emergency. Yesterday, the governing monarchy received backup from more than 1,000 troops led by neighboring Saudi Arabia. The reinforcements were the first large cross-border incursion against democratic revolts.

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