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Grilling gets heated in House committee hearing on Egypt and Middle East

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Running the gantlet was an old form of punishment in which a culprit ran between two rows of people who would yell, spit or strike the person as he or she passed by. In more modern times, it is defined by one dictionary as "to go through a series of criticisms or harsh treatments at the hands of one's detractors."

Last Thursday, Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg faced the equivalent of the gantlet while appearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss U.S. policies toward Egypt, Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East.

In discussing Obama administration positions and State Department actions during a session that lasted more than two hours, Republicans and Democrats alternated between verbal whippings about past and recent activities and extended, sometimes-contradictory lectures on what should be done.

Overall, the hearing should be viewed as a preview of what this panel will be doing for the next two years, headed as it is by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a firm critic of many Obama administration approaches to foreign policy.

Take Ros-Lehtinen's opening statement, in which she discussed the state of affairs of what she termed "the Lebanon debacle." She was referring to Lebanon's last elections, in which Hezbollah won a prominent role, and how its recent prime minister-designate, Najib Mikati, is attempting to form a government.

Hezbollah's election success, she said, was based on the failure of "responsible nations to insist on changing Syrian-dictated electoral law and subsequent regulation."

She lectured: "Clear standards for participation in elections and institutions must be both articulated and implemented to ensure that destructive actors are not afforded the opportunity to hijack an incipient democratic process."

Nowhere did she recognize any limitation on what the United States could do in shaping another country's election laws. She went on to say that the next round of Egyptian elections should have "clear standards for participation and a democratic institutional framework."

Lebanon came up again and, when it did, Steinberg said economic and military assistance programs to that country were under "constant review."

Steinberg faced numerous questions about the Muslim Brotherhood, the longtime Egyptian Islamic political party that continues to exist, though it was officially banned by the Mubarak government.

In her opening remarks, Ros-Lehtinen said, "Engaging the Muslim Brotherhood must not be on the table."

Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) asked whether the administration "is making a priority of preventing the Muslim Brotherhood from stepping in."

Steinberg replied, as he did often during the grilling, that the United States is supporting different civil-society groups as it has in the past through assistance programs, democracy programs, as well as making clear to the Egyptian government that all voices need to be heard.

Steinberg assured lawmakers that the United States does not want to see the process "hijacked by extremists." Then he added, "The process itself is one for the Egyptians to decide. . . . But I think it's not for the United States to be in the meetings themselves."

Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) also brought up the Muslim Brotherhood, comparing it to a virus in a computer or an element of the society "that would destroy the government itself."

Steinberg responded that if "there were actual acts that were threatening to people, that would not be acceptable."

Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) was the first to criticize the administration for turning on then-President Hosni Mubarak, describing him as "the administration's dictator until his utility and usefulness erodes . . . and then the administration finds its public voice on human rights and democracy and calls on the former friend to get out of town."

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) took it a step further. He compared turning on the Mubarak regime to the U.S. response in Iran in 2009, when there were protests against Iran's presidential election results.

The United States, he said, had "a sort of muffled response."

At the time, Obama said that he did not want Iran's government to make U.S. support for protesters an issue.

Rep. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.) said it was "extraordinarily disappointing" that Obama did "nothing" when the 2009 protests began but on day three said "something to the effect that we need to continue dialogue with the [Iranian] clerics."

Steinberg responded that the United States issued supportive statements for the Iranians then on the streets and has continued support for human rights there.

Manzullo fired back: "They were not supported. . . . Nothing on that order that was given to the people in Egypt, specifically saying Mubarak has got to go."

Steinberg pointed out, "We have not used that expression. . . . What the president has said, what the secretary has said, is that change has to come, that transition has to come."

Then Manzullo asked, "What happens if demonstrations break out in Tehran?"

Steinberg replied, "We will do as we have done . . . about demonstrations, whether they're in Syria or Iran."

Manzullo called the response "weak" and told Steinberg that he just wanted him to know "how disappointed we were with the president and the very weak response to the people demonstrating for democracy in the streets of Tehran back in the summer of '09."

Ros-Lehtinen thanked Manzullo, adding, "I very much agree with you."

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