Why is US so quiet as regimes crack down on 'Arab Spring' protesters?

State Department spoke Thursday of 'deep concern' about violence against protesters in Yemen. Meanwhile, tumult ensues from Syria to Libya. Critics: Obama has no real policy on 'Arab Spring.'

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
Antigovernment protesters shout slogans during a demonstration to demand the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the southern city of Taiz on May 12.

The United States is “deeply concerned” about recent violence in Yemen against peaceful protesters, and it supports an agreement brokered by the Gulf states that envisions a “peaceful transition of power,” the State Department said Thursday, in a statement.

The statement, which seemed to consciously avoid citing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh by name, nevertheless stood out. It was one public notation by the Obama administration of events in the Middle East, on a day when violence and conflict flared from Syria to Libya.

The relative dearth of reaction from Washington is causing speculation as to why the Obama administration is keeping so quiet.

To some foreign policy specialists, developments in the Middle East cry out for a US response. In addition to Yemen, Syrian forces continued their attacks on pockets of antigovernment protest – with some authorities predicting ominously that the end of the protests is near – and Libyan rebels claimed crucial territorial gains against the forces of leader Muammar Qaddafi as NATO renewed its bombardment of Colonel Qaddafi’s compound.

One factor some political and regional analysts suggest may be at play is that President Obama plans to deliver a major speech on the Middle East as early as next week. With the president presumably working with staff on the message or points he wants to convey, the impulse may be to hold off on official commentary until then, some political experts say.

The White House did announce that national security adviser Tom Donilon will meet Friday with a delegation from the Libyan Transitional National Council, including its president, Mahmoud Gibril.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday Mr. Obama planned to deliver the speech “in the relatively near future,” but some analysts speculate that the president may want to offer his vision for a new Middle East before he sits down at the White House next Friday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yet another reason for the administration’s relative quiet may be a point Obama is expected to make in his speech: that, notwithstanding impressive and even occasionally history-altering events like the mission against Osama bin Laden, the US has little power on its own to bring change to the Middle East, and that change must come from within.

“The president is probably going to want to underscore the point, especially in the aftermath of the bin Laden raid, that the people of the region have rejected the path of Osama bin Laden and have chosen a different future,” says Lawrence Korb, a foreign policy specialist at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “It’s a good point, but it’s also an opportunity for Obama to talk about how what we’re witnessing is an entire region of people demanding to decide their own destiny, and how we’ll do what we can to help that happen but how it’s not something that’s up to us.”

One school of criticism of Obama’s approach to events in the Middle East is that he has been “leading from behind.” Others, like former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, go farther, saying the Obama administration is so quiet because it has no strategy for addressing Middle East tumult.

“We need a broader strategic idea of how to proceed throughout the Middle East, but we obviously don’t have one,” Mr. Bolton said in a recent Fox News appearance.

An example of such a “strategic idea,” Bolton says, would be to focus on how to counter Iran’s rise in the region, including in Syria. Iran is seen to be siding solidly with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad – supplying arms and other assistance – in its increasingly violent confrontation with political opponents.

But Mr. Korb says the president’s approach – and the administration’s quiet on events – reflects a realistic understanding of the limits of US power.

In cases like Syria, the US doesn’t have that much leverage anyway, many regional experts say. And in places like Yemen, US national security interests may indeed dictate a cautious response.

The US has joined the Gulf states of the Gulf Cooperation Council in seeking an orderly transition from President Saleh’s rule. But the US is also concerned about the presence in Yemen of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and of the boon that Yemeni political instability could be to the Al Qaeda branch.

The administration’s low profile on Middle East events may also be a reflection of ongoing debates among top policy advisers over positions the US should take, and how aggressive the US should be in touting those positions.

Those debates may be especially sharp as the president prepares to make a major policy speech, Korb says.

“We now know there was disagreement over whether or not it was a good idea to send the special forces into Pakistan, and there’s a debate on Yemen and what the consequences might be if you say too much or push too hard on events there,” he says. “The president listens to that, but then the time comes when he decides what he’s going to do or say.”

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