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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.

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“You see the attempt to bring together an international consensus,” he adds, especially in Obama’s statement Wednesday encouraging a coordinated international approach to Libya.

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Risk being on wrong side of history

One risk for Obama of the approach he has favored so far – weighing US interests and insisting consistently that the change will come from within the Middle East countries and not from outside – is that it can leave the US looking like it’s behind the curve or on the wrong side of history.

In an “online dialogue” with Egyptian youths Wednesday over the Egyptian website Masrawy.com, for example, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was asked by several young people why the US was slow to support the protesters. Some asked why the US supported the regime of Hosni Mubarak for so long. (Secretary Clinton said the US has long valued Egypt as a partner, even though it has not always agreed with its policies, and has long pressed for political reform. But she said the Obama administration supported the aspirations of the Egyptian people from the outset of this year’s events.)

But then, anyone who expects Obama to focus on America’s ideals without considering critical national security interests is simply not being realistic, some experts say.

“He is after all the president of the United States, not the president of Amnesty International,” says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow focusing on US national security policy in the Middle East at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Disappointment over Libya statement

Mr. Katulis says he recognizes that some advocates of a more activist US approach were disappointed in Obama’s statement on Libya, for example. “But I think that if people take into account all the factors the president has to consider” – and here he lists national-security priorities such as threats from terrorist groups, the risks of state failure and civil conflict, as well as Iran’s looming nuclear progress and Israeli-Palestinian peace – “then you’re more likely to find that the administration is striking the right balance.”

One challenge the administration faces in Libya is that the regime of Muammar Qaddafi has been so effective at eliminating political opponents that it is unclear what other political leadership might be tapped to avoid a state collapse. Even with such situations, Katulis says, it is “not only possible, but essential” that the Obama administration focus on promoting both reform and democracy’s emergence, and US national security interests, at the same time.

Noting that he recently participated in a seminar in Israel entitled “Stability vs. Democracy,” Katulis says the situation is “not as dichotomous as some people see it. In the long run, you can’t have one without the other.”

IN PICTURES: Libya protests

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