In Arab capitals, Clinton delivers a risk-laden message of reform

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By Joby Warrick
Friday, January 14, 2011

DOHA, QATAR - With a campaign-style swing through the Middle East, Hillary Rodham Clinton reached out to ordinary Arabs as well as their leaders this week to push for economic and political reforms, highlighting themes that aides say are close to her heart as secretary of state, but also fraught with risk.

Clinton's four-day barnstormer through five Persian Gulf capitals was built around a series of town hall-style meetings, conferences and media interviews in which she pushed key Arab allies - sometimes forcefully - to speed up reforms to give their citizens more choices. In a meeting Thursday in the Qatari capital, she bluntly criticized the region's leaders for tolerating "corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order."

Her message was enthusiastically received by thousands of Arabs - from Yemen's crowded, rubble-strewn capital of Sanaa to the dazzlingly modern metropolises of Dubai and Doha. Yet, the week also brought fresh reminders of how democratization of Middle Eastern societies has sometimes worked against U.S. interests in the region.

Three years ago, the powerful, Iran-backed Hezbollah party joined Lebanon's coalition government in elections that were promoted by the George W. Bush administration as a means of delivering greater democratic freedoms. This week, Hezbollah forced the collapse of the country's government to protest a U.N.-led investigation into the slaying of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose U.S.-allied government is frequently accused of being autocratic and corrupt, faces an opposition coalition that includes anti-Western Islamists and communists. That government, too, has heard from Clinton about U.S. expectations for parliamentary elections due to take place this year.

But an election that weakens Saleh's hand could also undermine his efforts to battle a Yemen-based al-Qaeda faction that has sought twice to blow up Western airliners in the past 13 months, a Yemeni official said.

"Without question, there are risks," said the official, who insisted on anonymity in discussing relations with the country's most important ally.

Clinton, in her visits to Arab capitals this week, built her message around the promotion of "civil society," one of the central themes of her two-year tenure as the top U.S. diplomat. The term encompasses a broad array of socially progressive movements and institutions that seek to expand economic and political opportunity for ordinary citizens, including women, the disabled and minority groups.

"Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the impact of their countries' problems for a little while, but not forever," Clinton said in a speech Thursday at a civil-society conference in Doha. "If leaders don't offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum," including "extremist elements, terrorist groups and others who prey on desperation and poverty."

Most of the specific reforms advocated by Clinton involved economic empowerment, rather than political change. She called on Arab governments to expand education and business opportunities for ordinary citizens, and she reserved her harshest criticism for official corruption, calling it "a cancer that eats away at the heart of a country."

"It is important to demonstrate that there is rule of law, good governance and respect for contracts to create an investment climate that attracts businesses and keeps them there," she said.

Yet corruption and political stagnation have helped preserve the authority of Middle Eastern governments that have long been close allies of the United States. Obama administration officials are bracing for a possible change of government in Egypt, where various groups are seeking to position themselves to replace President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime ally who has helped preserve stability in the region during four decades of autocratic rule.

As Clinton pointed out, greater political freedom for ordinary citizens in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip resulted in election wins for Hezbollah and Hamas, two groups committed to the destruction of Israel. "When [Israelis] pulled out of Gaza, they got Hamas and 20,000 rockets," she said.

The United States' push for political and social reform in the Middle East also has opened the Obama administration to charges of hypocrisy for failing to do more to ensure similar freedoms and opportunities for Palestinians living in the West Bank. As one questioner in Doha put it: "How can the secretary of state come here and talk about intransigence and broken promises when you cannot stop Israel from building [settlements] in the West Bank and Jerusalem?"

Clinton, in response, acknowledged the limits of U.S. persuasive powers, even among close friends and allies. "I wish there were a way that we could tell a lot of countries what they should do," she quipped.

"We can't stop a lot of countries from doing things we disagree with, and that we speak out against," she said.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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