In Middle East, Clinton asks for patience with U.S. strategy

Hillary Clinton is welcomed by Ali al-Hajri, Qatar's ambassador to the United States. The secretary gave a lengthy speech in Doha.
Hillary Clinton is welcomed by Ali al-Hajri, Qatar's ambassador to the United States. The secretary gave a lengthy speech in Doha. (Maneesh Bakshi/associated Press)
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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010

DOHA, QATAR -- Call it Hillary Rodham Clinton's "Keep Hope Alive" tour.

The secretary of state ventured to the Middle East this weekend to assuage doubts that have arisen over the Obama administration after an initial bout of euphoria that the new president could quickly break the stalemates within the region, and between Islam and the West.

In what aides billed as a sequel to President Obama's speech in Cairo last June, in which he called for ending the "cycle of suspicion and discord" between the United States and the Muslim world, Clinton on Sunday delivered a lengthy speech before the U.S.-Islamic World Forum here that essentially pleaded for patience even as many of the administration's initiatives on Middle Eastern peace, and on outreach to Iran, have faltered.

Clinton acknowledged concerns in the region "that the U.S. commitment is insufficient or insincere, that we have not fully embraced the spirit of mutual respect and partnership that the president described, or that we will fail to translate that spirit into the concrete steps needed to achieve real and lasting change in the world."

But she said such changes "cannot happen overnight or even in a year."

"It takes patience, persistence and hard work from us all," Clinton said.

Arab diplomats privately have expressed dismay and disappointment with the Obama administration's performance, though some acknowledge that hopes were perhaps too high after the Bush administration, which was little loved in the region.

Early in Obama's tenure, the president appeared to take a strong stand against Israeli settlement expansion and, in the Cairo speech, suggested a striking sympathy to the Palestinian narrative. Many Arabs, however, believe Obama buckled to strong Israeli resistance and accepted something less than a full settlement freeze. Now, months later, the administration is still struggling to rekindle talks.

"This is hard work," Clinton said. "I know people are disappointed that we have not yet achieved a breakthrough." But she added: "We must remember that neither the United States nor any country can force a solution. The parties must resolve their differences through negotiations."

Clinton also said that the United States had tried to engage with Iran but got little in return and had tried to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, but "our progress has been slow because this is difficult." She added that the United States had faced "a difficult balance" when it imposed new airline security regulations that targeted many Arabs.

In her speech, with Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and Prime Minister Hamad bin Jasim al-Thani in the audience, Clinton stressed the need for fundamental rights, including freedom of religion, freedom of expression and women's rights. Freedom House, which tracks citizens' rights worldwide, ranks Qatar low in all of those areas.

Clinton noted that after the Obama administration joined the U.N. Human Rights Council, "one of our first acts was to work with Egypt on a freedom of expression resolution."

Egypt also ranks poorly in the Freedom House ratings, and Clinton's remark prompted Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was jailed in Egypt for his democracy work, to note during a question-and-answer session that the problem in the Middle East is not freedom of expression but "freedom after expression."

"We don't have any magic wands we can wave," Clinton replied.

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