Revolution Is in the Air but US Sticks to Same Old Script
Events in the Middle East are moving too fast for the Obama administration to think it can get away with Plan A and Plan B reaction strategies according to the regimes or leaders it wants to keep in and out of power.
Consider the response of the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to Hezbollah tightening its grip on power in Lebanon this week - Washington might have to pull its funding worth hundreds of millions for Lebanon, her office warned.
But as democracy demonstrators were confronted by thousands of baton-wielding policemen in the streets in Cairo, there was no mention of pulling the $US2 billion-plus cheque that Washington writes for the octogenarian President, Hosni Mubarak, each year.
Instead, a rhetorical nugget that Mubarak's mouthpieces would use in their defence - ''our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable'' and then some namby-pamby words about how Mubarak was ''looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people''.
That response came on Wednesday - more thugs in and out of uniform in the streets, more tear-gas and 860 more young Egyptians banged up in prison because, Oliver-like, they had the audacity to stand in the streets and to ask for more. Such is stability.
Undaunted, Clinton tried again on Wednesday, when she called on the Egyptian authorities to cease blocking the communications on which the demonstrators relied. But on Thursday the Twitter and Facebook websites were inaccessible and mobile-phone users in Cairo said that it was difficult or impossible to sent text messages.
Clinton uttered the ''stability'' line early in the week - before the seriousness of what is unfolding in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria came in to focus. Consider how it might be interpreted by ordinary Egyptians - the human rights of 80 million people have been trampled for 30 years but what the US Secretary of State is most concerned about is the stability of the state.
And, even as the focus sharpened, the administration refused to tell the truth about the despot upon whom Washington relies - ''Egypt is a strong ally,'' the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, replied when asked if the administration still supported Mubarak.
And, in a week in which the Middle East's historic self-started wave of democracy protests came to a head, Barack Obama might have used his State of the Union address to cheer along all the protesters; and perhaps to warn all the leaders, country by country, of the fate that awaits them.
Instead he confined his specific remarks to Tunisia, saying: ''The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.'' So, in a region of 333 million people, where to varying degrees a good 325 million are under the heel of unelected leaders, the US President addressed only little Tunisia.
The lame excuse offered to reporters was that Cairo erupted late in the drafting process of the speech but that last ''aspirations of all people'' phrase was a recognition that ''what happens in Tunisia resonates around the world''.
By current American thinking it would never do to have Islamists in power in the Palestinian Occupied Territories or in Lebanon and therefore they heed every despot's warning that the Islamists are waiting in the wings across North Africa and the Middle East.
But lost in the lunge to protect US strategic and commercial interests by propping up the region's dictator class is any realisation that that support is what leaves the youth of the region under-educated and under-employed and, thereby, ripe for the picking by Islamist and other underground movements.
In Tunisia the revolutionaries are still searching for a leader who can articulate their demands. And this week a leader flew in to Cairo - searching for a revolution. That was the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, whose return to Egypt underscores a challenge brought on across the region as much by the local community as the international community - the grooming of those who might form a half-decent opposition.
Tracing an arc through Obama's approach to the Middle East, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies professor Fouad Ajami described the President's foreign policy pragmatism as ''a break of faith with democracy''.
Alluding to the suppression of demonstrations in Tehran after the contested 2009 presidential election, he wrote in Lebanon's Daily Star: ''American diplomacy was not likely to alter the raw balance of power between the regime and its democratic oppositionists. But the timidity of American power and the refusal of the Obama administration to embrace the cause of the opposition must be reckoned one of American foreign policy's great moral embarrassments.''
The Mubarak machine's contempt for popular aspirations and whatever the US might think of them was on full display yesterday when Safwat el-Sherif, the head of the ruling National Democratic Party, feigned obliviousness to the reality of political power in Egypt as he lectured the protesters - ''democracy has its rules and process - the minority does not force its will on the majority''.
Abdel Moneim Said, a stooge government-appointed publisher, echoed Hillary Clinton's midweek ''stability'' comment when he told reporters: ''I can't think of anybody that I know that has any concern about the stability of the regime.''
Finding the right policy mix to influence events without being accused of interfering is a fine balance that some observers have concluded eludes the Obama administration.
''It's about identifying the US too closely with these changes and thereby undermining them; and not finding ways to nurture them enough,'' Aaron David Miller, of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, told The New York Times.
Meanwhile, observers on the ground in the region shake their heads. ''People want moral support,'' said Shadi Hamid, of the Brookings Doha Centre. ''They want to hear words of encouragement - right now they don't have that. They feel the world doesn't care and is working against them.''
His point seems to be this: it is time Washington thought in terms of investing in people in the region, not in dictators.