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Obama and Human Rights in the Middle East

By / 1.28.2011

Events over the last few weeks demand a reconsideration, if not a full-scale reevaluation of the wisdom of the Obama administration’s overall approach to democracy and human rights in the Middle East.

Facts are stubborn things, and the reality is that President Obama’s administration has now succeeded where President Bush never did. On his watch, Tunisia’s people rose up in protest over economic corruption and government repression and a dictator fled. The Arab world has a fighting chance at establishing its first true democracy.

At a minimum, those on the right who incessantly take credit wherever freedom blossoms need to grapple with that fact. But even more than that may be called for.

The Obama administration’s approach has not always been perfect, but it does appear, for the most part, rather consistent. And it does appear to have helped. It combines a steady rhetorical insistence on universal principles with an attempt, not always successful, to avoid lending its political support to either governments or protesters—betting on both and neither at the same time—event at times of crisis for regimes.

With events heating up in Egypt, the Obama Administration has done nothing to impede—and in fact has amplified—Egyptians’ calls for change.

With regard to events in Tunisia, Clinton was even more direct. Just days before Ben Ali fled the country, with his government grasping for support, she refused to throw him a rope, telling Al Arabiya: “We are not taking sides.”

Most importantly, the Obama administration has called on the governments of Egypt and Tunisia to respect the rights of peaceful protesters and to refrain from violence. This is by far the most valuable stance the U.S. can take in this moment of instability. An Tiananmen-style crackdown in Cairo’s Tahrir Square would have devastating consequences for Egyptians and Americans alike.

The toughest part has yet to come: Todays’s protests in Egypt are likely to be larger than the ones on Tuesday, and Tunisia has yet to consolidate anything resembling a democratic government. But so far, we have to commend the Obama administration’s approach to both Tunisia and Egypt.