Obama's pressure on Mubarak could cost US regional influence
As it increases pressure on Mubarak to resign, the US risks being seen as abandoning a longtime friend. The result could be the lasting mistrust of key Middle East partners.
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And as he has, a nagging question has dogged White House deliberations: What will be the impact on relations in the region – and on vital American interests – if the over-arching perception among leaders is of the US abandoning a longtime friend?
As the US looks more and more like it is “throwing in the towel” on Mr. Mubarak, one unwanted result could be a building mistrust between the US and countries it relies on for cooperation on issues ranging from international terrorism and the flow of energy to the Arab-Israeli peace process and the containment of Iran, experts in the region say.
“Other authoritarian governments will view with deep unease how quickly the US government appears to have abandoned its closest friend in the region,” says David Schenker, director of the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “We’ll see the effects of this for years to come.”
The depth of the administration’s concern could be read between the lines of a White House statement Thursday summarizing Mr. Obama’s telephone conversation a day earlier with Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Obama called “to welcome the significant reform measures” President Saleh announced Wednesday, including a commitment not to run for reelection in 2013. Obama also stressed that Saleh “now needs to follow up his pledge with concrete actions.”
And by the way, the readout said, the US president also told the Yemeni leader that “it is imperative that Yemen take forceful action against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to protect innocent lives in Yemen as well as abroad.”
In other words, heed your people’s demands, but don’t forget our interests while you’re at it.
US principles vs. interests
It’s a tough, perhaps even unwinnable tug-of-war between principles and interests, some US foreign policy experts say.
“We have a stark dilemma in our own minds between … how long you stand by an old friend, and keeping Egypt on our side in our regional strategy,” says Charles Freeman, a longtime US diplomat and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “It’s really an irreconcilable contradiction.”