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As Middle East boils, a debate simmers: Is President Obama doing enough?

As President Obama confronts historic turmoil in the Middle East, some in Washington say he should embrace a more idealistic posture. Others says his cautious pragmatism is the best course.

By Staff writer / February 24, 2011

President Obama with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivers a statement on Libya in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington, on Wednesday, Feb. 23.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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Washington

As turmoil continues to shake the status quo in the Middle East, a debate is brewing in Washington over President Obama’s response to the upheaval.

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Should the president seize the moment to put the United States out front on the side of change and democratic ideals – or do the uncertainties and dangers apparent across the region warrant a more cautious, behind-the-scenes approach?

Proponents of an activist US approach tend to be foreign-policy idealists who believe America should be leading the way in the spread of universal values and democracy in the region. The former officials and pundits in this corner compare Mr. Obama’s actions so far with the “freedom agenda” and approach of former President George W. Bush – and find Obama’s actions wanting.

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On the other side are foreign-policy realists who say Obama has to balance the longstanding American goal of a more democratic and economically open Middle East against US national security interests such as regional stability (with one eye on oil production), nuclear nonproliferation, and counterterrorism, including denying Al Qaeda and other extremists any safe havens from which to operate.

So far Obama has responded to events in a way that is more to the liking of the second group. This week, for example, as Libya unraveled, Obama waited until Wednesday to comment on the state-sponsored violence there – and then, after calling the violence “outrageous,” his emphasis was on Americans’ safe passage out of the country and a multilateral approach to trying to influence the Libyan regime.

That kind of careful, balanced approach is not winning kudos from advocates of a more activist and pro-change stance from the US.

“What has been strikingly lacking in the Obama administration’s response is a sense of the possibility of the moment, a commitment to doing our best to bring that possibility to fruition, a realization that this may be an important inflection point in world history that should shake us out of business as usual,” wrote William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and proponent of a neoconservative vision of an activist and idealistic foreign policy, in a Washington Post opinion piece Wednesday.

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Mr. Kristol was a prominent supporter of President Bush’s approach to promoting regime change in favor of democracy in the Middle East. But some specialists see more of another Bush – one who was more of a foreign-policy traditionalist – in Obama’s actions.

“If you look across the playbook of the US in the Middle East,” Obama’s response to the upheaval so far “resembles the first President Bush in his response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait,” says Charles Ries, a veteran US diplomat who is now director of the RAND Corp.’s Center for Middle East Public Policy.

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