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U.S. Faces Difficult Balancing Act Amid Uprisings in Arab World

April 15, 2011 at 6:07 PM EDT
The U.S. response to Middle East unrest has varied from vocal support for demonstrations in Egypt to NATO attacks in Libya to near silence on protesters' marches in Bahrain. Judy Woodruff discusses the contrasting U.S. responses with Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress and Human Rights Watch's Maria McFarland.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We return to the Middle East and the American response to the uprisings there. The administration has supported pro-democracy movements from Libya and Egypt to Syria. But it has been more muted in other countries, especially Bahrain.

We get two views on U.S. policy from Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He was on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration. And Maria McFarland, she’s deputy Washington director for Human Rights Watch. She focuses on the Middle East and South Asia.

So, thank you to you both for being here.

Brian Katulis, to you first.

We heard these Bahraini demonstrators a few minutes ago saying that they think the U.S. is treating what is going on in the Middle East differently, that it is promoting democracy, pushing for democracy in Libya, in Egypt, but it’s been much less aggressive in Bahrain. Are they right about that?

BRIAN KATULIS, Center for American Progress: Of course they’re right. And, of course, I think the White House is correct in how it’s operating here.

They have a difficult balancing act. And I think President Obama has been quite clear in his speech in Libya that there wasn’t going to be a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach. The deputy national security adviser, Denis McDonough, said that our actions in Libya should not be viewed as setting expectations or precedents about how we approach these, because this is the traditional clash between values and interests.

And in Bahrain, you know, if there was a priority of our policy in the Middle East before these uprisings, it was containing Iranian influence. And there was a perception that one of these pillars of containment of Iran was starting to crumble. So, we’re going to approach it differently than we would, say, Egypt or Libya because we have different interests. And I think the challenge is to try to promote our values as best as possible in that context.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to explore some of that in just a moment.

But, Maria McFarland, is it a double standard?

MARIA MCFARLAND, Human Rights Watch: I think that it is a double standard, not so much with Libya, but for example, when you compare public statements on Bahrain with public statements on Syria, where the president recently called the detention and abuse of demonstrators abhorrent.

In Bahrain, there has been no strong condemnation of hundreds of detentions of the disappearance of protesters, of torture and of deaths in custody in the last month or two. And similarly, there has been no statement by the administration that clearly asks Bahrain to adopt reforms, to call for meaningful change in that country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it a lack of information that the United States has, Brian Katulis? I mean, is it — what — what — how — I mean, on the face of it, how does the administration explain this?

BRIAN KATULIS: Well, look, I think they’ve been pretty clear. They’re not hypocritical. They say that essentially — they don’t use this language, but they say that there are two different standards being applied here.

In mid-March, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates went to Bahrain and actually called for political openings and political reform. Less than 24 hours later, Saudi troops and Emirati police entered to crush this peaceful democratic protest.

And the Saudi role in all of this, not only in Bahrain, but in places even like Syria and especially Yemen, I think it’s telling to me that Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, flew to Riyadh and…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just a few days ago.

BRIAN KATULIS: Just a few days ago — to talk with them, because ever since Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak, stepped down in Egypt, and the Saudis were quite vocal in their displeasure of how the United States handled it — I disagree with the Saudi criticism, but I think this is a delicate balancing act that links us to oil, counterterrorism and a range of interests in the region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Maria McFarland, remind us why the Saudis care so much about what is happening in Bahrain.

MARIA MCFARLAND: They don’t want a neighboring country to present an example to their citizens of change, of greater democracy. It would be very problematic for the Saudis if suddenly their population saw that, in a neighboring country, they had a constitutional monarchy.

Similarly, it’s a problem because the protesters in Bahrain are part of the majority Shia population, for the most part. And the Sunni government, like the Bahraini government, is Sunni. The Saudi government does not want their Shia to start rising up in the same way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so, when the Obama administration, when the United States says to Saudi and says to the Bahrain regime, democratize a little, make some change, the answer is what?

BRIAN KATULIS: Well, I think we have seen the answers from their actions. They have crushed the opposition. And I think, today, there was a little bit of an opening when they responded to this ruling on the opposition party.

And that’s what it going to be, I think, is going to be very tiny baby steps, because why? We don’t have this much leverage in a place like Saudi Arabia or in Bahrain because of the oil. I came here, and there was $4 a gallon of gas. And a lot of Americans are feeling this. And I think the Saudis know how much power and control they have.

In a place like Egypt, we have a little bit more leverage, but we shouldn’t overstate it. We should not overstate how much even our military assistance matters in shaping the political road map in that country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that pretty much mean that the Saudis can do what they want? We know they sent troops, they sent weapons into Bahrain. Can they pretty much determine what they want to do and follow through?

MARIA MCFARLAND: Well, let me just address one other point, which is that I don’t think that the current strategy of staying silent on the repression is a very smart thing strategically to do, because to the extent that the U.S. remains silent on abuses against Shia populations, it’s actually likely to feed into this perception that the U.S. is siding with Sunni governments in the region, and it’s likely to strengthen those who oppose and criticize the U.S. among the Shia.

Exactly the outcome that the U.S. doesn’t want of maybe strengthening Iran’s hand is likely if it continues down…

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re really talking about Iran here, principally?

MARIA MCFARLAND: That’s part of it, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You — you brought up Iran in your first comment.

BRIAN KATULIS: It’s a big part of it, but if we want to talk about double standards or hypocrisy, let’s listen to the Iranian government praising democratic opposition groups in Bahrain, when they’ve just crushed violently their own democratic opposition.

So, I think — you know, I really am concerned about Iran, but to a certain extent, I think there’s a way for us to balance these in a pragmatic way. And I think this is what the Obama administration is doing. I don’t think it has been silent on many of these instances. They actually have a template. They stress nonviolence and they stress the universal declaration of human rights.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. administration.

BRIAN KATULIS: Yes, the U.S. — yes. Every single statement they — on Syria, they make this. The question, though, is, what are the tools, what’s the leverage that we have with each of these countries?

And I think they’re trying to balance strategic interests with raising and elevating these values and principles. And it’s not going to be easy in these tough countries like Saudi Arabia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But is it accurate, Maria McFarland, to say that Iran is behind the Shia uprising in a place like Bahrain?

MARIA MCFARLAND: I don’t think so, actually.

From — we have been on the ground since it started.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Human Rights Watch.

MARIA MCFARLAND: Human Rights Watch has been on the ground since it started, and we have been monitoring Bahrain for years.

What we saw were peaceful protests by people who were calling for constitutional monarchy. The sorts of reforms that they wanted were democratic reforms to allow for an elected parliament, for an election for prime minister, for freedom of the press.

I don’t think they’re looking for an Islamic theocracy. They want democracy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is that an inconsistency that’s a problem for the U.S. administration, U.S. policy?

BRIAN KATULIS: Well, look, there’s going to be a lot of inconvenient inconsistencies as this region of the world goes through this process of political transformation.

And I think it’s going to take, not months, not — perhaps more than years, and perhaps the rest of this decade. But I think the Saudi government, other governments in the region are fooling themselves if they can actually feel like they can hunker down and oppose this tide, because the region is facing crushing demographic, political and economic concerns.

They have got a generation that’s coming of age. And simply hunkering down might work for a couple of months or maybe even a couple of years in these places, but I think pragmatically getting them to open up their political systems is going to be one of our strategic interests.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We will leave it there.

Brian Katulis, Maria McFarland, we thank you both.