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.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
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.

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.

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.

IN PICTURES: Libya protests

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.

Countries in the Middle East where the 'winds of change' are blowing

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.

“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.

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, 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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