A Welcome Shift in the Obama Administration’s Rhetoric on Human Rights and Democracy in the Middle East

On Monday, as tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to demand a change in their autocratic, unresponsive and increasingly corrupt government, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a statement that has caused dismay and consternation among supporters of a more democratic Egypt.

Apparently taken aback by unexpected events in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, Secretary Clinton said: “the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” Given that these words were uttered at the time Egyptian state security forces were warming to their task of dispersing protesters with batons and tear gas, they were, at best, ill-judged.

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Breaking the “Steel Vise:” U.S. Government Support for Civil Society


Over the weekend at the Community of Democracies conference in Krakow, Poland, Secretary of State Clinton made an important speech that set out in unambiguous terms the U.S. government’s support for independent civil society. She noted that it – together with representative government and a well-functioning market economy – is a vital part of the “three essential elements of a free nation” and is necessary for any country to progress in the 21st century.

The forthright tone of Secretary Clinton’s remarks was in welcome contrast to some of the administration’s earlier and more equivocal statements about human rights and democracy. 

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The Clinton-Gates Axis

Mark Landler and Thom Shanker have an article in the New York Times on the emerging alliance between Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Gates casting them as "two moderate pragmatists" who are likely to advocate a middle ground between the "minimalist" Biden approach that focuses on counter-terrorism and the full-on counter-insurgency approach advocated by General McChrystal among others. The article suggests that the two secretaries are expected to carry great weight as they begin to express specific advice.

The problem is that the Vice President is right in his view that a larger military presence in Afghanistan will breed resentment among Afghans especially the Pashtuns and is likely politically untenable at home. As I've noted before, a growing Pashtun nationalism is fueling the growing Taliban insurgency. A "Pashtunistan" is now a part of the Taliban platform. Recent Taliban communiques all make appeals to driving out the foreign occupiers.

Beyond this stark reality is the economic cost of the Afghan war. Since the invasion of Afghanistan eight years ago, the United States has spent $223 billion on the Afghan war-related funding, according to the Congressional Research Service. Aid expenditures, excluding the cost of combat operations, have also grown exponentially, from $982 million in 2003 to $9.3 billion in 2008. The cost of fighting the war in Afghanistan will overtake that of the Iraq conflict for the first time in 2010. Even before General McChrystal's troop increase request, the Pentagon had requested $65 billion for Afghanistan on top of the basic defense budget of $533.7 billion. An escalation of any size will only add to the financial burden.

The economic cost of an escalation in Afghanistan needs to be a part of this discussion even if the seemingly influentially ascendant Clinton-Gates axis seems to ignore it.

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Clinton's Defense Umbrella Idea for the Mid-East Resurfaces

Secretary of State Clinton in Bangkok resurrected an idea that she originally proposed back during the primaries last year. Then a candidate for President, Mrs. Clinton argued that United States would deal with a nuclear Iran -- by arming its neighbors and extending a "umbrella of deterrence" over the region. In an April 2008 debate, then Senator Clinton said that the United States "should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel. Of course I would make it clear to the Iranians that an attack on Israel would incur massive retaliation from the United States, but I would do the same with other countries in the region."

Recently a number of foreign policy analysts have suggested that Secretary Clinton was a forgotten player in the Obama Administration - some going as far that she had been sidelined completely - but the resurfacing of the defense umbrella idea is the clearest evidence yet that Secretary Clinton is winning policy battles within the Administration.

From the New York Times:

"We will still hold the door open (for talks with Iran) but we also have made it clear that we'll take actions, as I've said time and time again, crippling action, working to upgrade the defense of our partners in the region," she said in a program taped for Thai television during a visit to Bangkok.

"We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment ... that if the U.S. extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf, it's unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer because they won't be able to intimidate and dominate as they apparently believe they can once they have a nuclear weapon."

Last week Clinton said Iran's intentions were unclear following June's election there and that Washington's offer of talks with Tehran over its nuclear program was not open-ended.

The former Bush administration refused to engage Iran directly until it had met certain preconditions, including suspending uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear power plants or atomic weapons.

But President Barack Obama, who took over in January, says that approach failed and Clinton has also said it was a mistake.

Despite the policy shift, Iran has not responded to Obama's overtures and those from other countries seeking to persuade Tehran to give up sensitive nuclear work the West believes is aimed at building a bomb and Iran says is to generate power.

Diplomats suspect Iran is buying time by stalling over getting into any substantive talks.

As James Hoagland noted US defense guarantees would enable "Arab states to forgo developing their own nuclear arsenals, just as the U.S.-Japan bilateral security treaty is intended to keep Japan nuclear-free." Deterrence works. It is a proven concept.

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Clinton's Quiet Diplomacy Envisions An "Architecture of Global Cooperation"

Secretary of State Clinton delivered what had been billed as a major foreign policy address (transcript) on Wednesday at the DC offices of the Council of Foreign Relations. I'm not sure if the speech has a title but if not it will likely go down in the annals of US diplomatic history as the "architecture of global cooperation" speech. The whole speech is worth a read for it lays out quite succinctly the new approach representing a clean break with the unilateralism of the Bush Administration.

The main thesis is:

Our approach to foreign policy must reflect the world as it is, not as it used to be. It does not make sense to adapt a 19th century concert of powers, or a 20th century balance of power strategy. We cannot go back to Cold War containment or to unilateralism.

Today, we must acknowledge two inescapable facts that define our world: First, no nation can meet the world's challenges alone. The issues are too complex. Too many players are competing for influence, from rising powers to corporations to criminal cartels; from NGOs to al-Qaida; from state-controlled media to individuals using Twitter.

Second, most nations worry about the same global threats, from non-proliferation to fighting disease to counter-terrorism, but also face very real obstacles - for reasons of history, geography, ideology, and inertia. They face these obstacles and they stand in the way of turning commonality of interest into common action.

So these two facts demand a different global architecture - one in which states have clear incentives to cooperate and live up to their responsibilities, as well as strong disincentives to sit on the sidelines or sow discord and division.

So we will exercise American leadership to overcome what foreign policy experts at places like the Council call "collective action problems" and what I call obstacles to cooperation. For just as no nation can meet these challenges alone, no challenge can be met without America.

And here's how we'll do it: We'll work through existing institutions and reform them. But we'll go further. We'll use our power to convene, our ability to connect countries around the world, and sound foreign policy strategies to create partnerships aimed at solving problems. We'll go beyond states to create opportunities for non-state actors and individuals to contribute to solutions.

In short, the goal is build working coalitions to address regional and global problems by engaging states, non-state actors and even individuals in certain cases to focus on cooperation rather than confrontation. The aim is to advance US interests by uniting diverse partners around common concerns and to move the world from a multi-polar orientation to a multi-partner one.

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