WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared Monday that the Obama administration would work with ascendant Islamist parties of the Muslim world, answering one of the central U.S. policy questions resulting from the Arab Spring.
Delivering an address at the National Democratic Institute, Clinton offered a forthright embrace of the democratic changes enveloping North Africa and the Middle East at a time when the euphoria of the successful revolutions from Egypt to Libya is giving way to the hard and unprecedented work of creating stable democracies.
After decades of partnering dictators throughout the region, her message was that the U.S. would approach the new political landscape with an open mind and the understanding that long-term support for democracy trumps any short-term advantages through alliances with authoritarian regimes.
While she reached out to the religious-rooted parties expected to gain power in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, she said nothing about changing U.S. policies toward Hezbollah and Hamas, which have performed well in Lebanese and Palestinian elections but are considered foreign terrorist organizations by the United States.
"For years, dictators told their people they had to accept the autocrats they knew to avoid the extremists they feared," Clinton told an audience that included former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. "Too often, we accepted that narrative ourselves."
After almost a year of protests and crackdowns, armed rebellion and civil war, the Arab world's upheaval has left a jumbled mosaic of liberals and Islamists, military rulers and loose coalitions of reformers. No country appears unalterably on a path toward democratic governance, and for the people of the region and the United States the stakes of long-term instability are high.
U.S. interests, including the security of oil supplies, military relations and Israel's defense, have forced the Obama administration to engage in flexible diplomacy, with different messages for different countries.
The one-size-does-not-fit-all approach has meant U.S. support for an imperfect military stewardship over Egypt ahead of elections for a new parliament and president, and largely overlooking ally Bahrain's rough response to protests earlier this year. Washington helped a military effort that ultimately deposed Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. It also demanded that leaders in Syria and Yemen leave power, without any real means to make them do so.
"There will be times when not all of our interests align," Clinton said. "That is just reality."
Still, she moved to counter an increasingly common criticism from Republicans, including among presidential hopefuls, that the Obama administration's boisterous support for the Arab Spring has foolishly opened the door to Islamist takeovers of once secular governments. Clinton took a hardline, deriding the suggestion that faithful Muslims cannot thrive in a democracy as "insulting, dangerous and wrong." She said the United States would work with any individuals and parties willing to uphold fundamental values.
Religious and secular parties alike "must reject violence. They must abide by the rule of law and respect the freedoms of speech, religion, association and assembly. They must respect the rights of women and minorities," Clinton said. "They must let go of power if defeated at the polls."
"In other words," Clinton added, "what parties call themselves is less important to us than what they actually do."
To underline her point, she welcomed the Islamist party Ennahda's strong showing in "an open, competitive election" in Tunisia last month, and said America will work with the party's leaders as they join secular groups in writing a new constitution and governing.
Tunisia, however, holds little strategic value for the U.S. The story is different with Egypt, a bulwark of American influence in the Middle East under Hosni Mubarak's three-decade rule.
U.S. officials have watched warily in recent months amid souring Egyptian-Israeli relations, violence against minority Copts and renewed popular frustration with a military leadership determined to maintain its grip on the future of the country, if not its governance. Since Mubarak's February ouster, Clinton has gone out of her way to describe Egypt's ruling military council as "an institution of stability and continuity," even as the U.S. has been frustrated by the council's slow pace of democratic reforms and continuation of the emergency laws that were a mainstay of abuse during the Mubarak era.
She took a tougher approach Monday, saying real power needed to be transferred in Egypt. "If, over time, the most powerful political force in Egypt remains a roomful of unelected officials, they will have planted the seeds for future unrest," Clinton said. "Egyptians will have missed a historic opportunity."
The strategy pivots on convincing Egypt to stick to scheduled elections later this year, regardless of whether votes over the next 18 months produce a new government that is less boisterously pro-American than Mubarak's regime was. Washington is hoping that steadfast support for democracy will win the U.S. new, long-term friends who'll support counterterrorism and diplomatic efforts, like Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, that may be deemed vital for American national security but not necessarily supported by the Egyptian people.
At the same time the U.S. has cautiously reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood, another Islamist opposition group likely to wield significant power in the future.
The demands on Egypt represent in some ways the set of American hopes and fears with the movements for greater democracy in the Arab world. Democracy can bring stability to an area of the world long riddled with corruption, economic disparity and underachievement. But the power vacuum of transition could let some countries slide back into military domination or create a powerful new wave of intolerant populism.
Clinton said transitions can be "chaotic, unstable, even violent," and they are rarely straightforward: "Just ask the Iranians who overthrew a dictator thirty-two years ago only to have their revolution hijacked by the extremists who have oppressed them ever since."
The speech was Clinton's first comprehensive report card on the Arab Spring since April, when Libya's revolution against Gadhafi's four decades of dictatorship was far from assured and President Bashar Assad's crackdown in Syria was widening. If Libya's revolutionaries have since provided their country with a new beginning, the situation in Syria has only gotten bloodier.
Clinton said the "revolutions are not ours — they are not by us, for us, or against us." The U.S. does have a role, she said, and it will work with the citizens of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to help safeguard democracy.
Of the other Arab countries hanging in the balance, Syria presents the United States with the greatest opportunity for a new strategic foothold. The 40-year Assad dynasty has been a constant thorn for Washington, closely partnering Iran and supporting the militant anti-Israeli group Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
A change of government offers obvious upsides for the U.S., which is calling for Assad to step down. But Syria's government has fiercely resisted calls from its people for reform, and protesters lack the capacity to stand up to Syrian forces. More than 3,000 people have died since March. Sanctions efforts at the United Nations have failed, and Washington has very little leverage with Damascus after decades of isolating the Syrian economy.
"Assad may be able to delay change, but he cannot deny his people's legitimate demands indefinitely," Clinton said. "Those leaders trying to hold back the future at the point of a gun should know their days are numbered."