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Amid Arab protests, U.S. influence has waned

By Liz Sly
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 4, 2011; 4:04 AM

BAGHDAD - In days gone by, it was pretty much guaranteed that any demonstration in the Arab world would feature burning American flags and a blazing effigy or two of the U.S. president.

At the pro-democracy demonstrations on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere, references to the United States have been conspicuously absent, a sign of what some analysts are already calling a "post-American Middle East" of diminished U.S. influence and far greater uncertainty about America's role.

For just as burning flags are not part of the current repertoire, neither are demonstrators carrying around models of the Statue of Liberty, as Chinese activists brought to Tiananmen Square in 1989. Middle East activists say they avoid references to the United States as a political role model for fear of alienating potential supporters, said Toujan Faisal, a veteran democracy campaigner in Jordan who has been advising young protesters in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

"I don't think America appeals to the younger generation," she said. "I'm cautious not to present them with the American example because there's a negative attitude to America, a disappointment."

No one yet knows what kind of Middle East will emerge from Cairo's embattled streets: a newly democratic one, an increasingly radicalized one, or perhaps one in which authoritarian regimes tighten their grip. Events in Cairo are unfolding too rapidly to predict, but one possible outcome could be a more visibly anti-American drift.

Still, it is notable that even the most rabid protests against President Hosni Mubarak have focused on his reign, rather than on the American role in enabling it.

Reform of a particular sort could actually bolster U.S. interests if it allows more open commerce and development of a strong middle class in societies often split today between a connected rich and a dispossessed poor.

Yet America's role could also be greatly diminished in an area that remains vital to its national interests, but where the perception has grown of a superpower with few friends beyond Israel and a coterie of authoritarian Arab rulers.

The Obama administration's initial, tepid response to the crisis, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton calling Mubarak's regime "stable" and Vice President Biden declaring that he didn't regard Mubarak as a dictator, did little to endear Washington to a region that has long yearned for political reform.

President Obama has since adopted a tougher stance, but his language has not gone far enough to convince Arabs puzzled by America's seeming inability to embrace a revolt that they think coincides with America's own ideals, said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

"No one in the region is pro-American anymore. The only hope is if Obama uses this opportunity to re-orientate U.S. policy in a fundamental way,'' he said. "Otherwise, I think we're losing the Arab world."

The trend became apparent well before Tunisians toppled their U.S.-backed dictator on Jan. 14, inspiring Egyptians to try to oust Mubarak and triggering waves of unrest in Jordan and Yemen.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq, undertaken ostensibly to spread democracy in a region of the world where it has failed to take root, has produced an elected government. But the latest one, installed in December, was formed only after Iran intervened to break months of deadlock, confirming its role as a major player in Iraq. The last 50,000 U.S. troops are due to leave by the end of the year, and it seems unlikely the Iraqi government will allow the U.S. military to retain even a small long-term presence.

In Lebanon, the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah movement wrested control last month from the pro-Western government propelled to power by the 2005 Cedar Revolution, in which 1 million Lebanese took to the streets to force the departure of occupying Syrian troops, with the strong backing of the George W. Bush administration.

To some extent, other regional powers are already filling the vacuum, including an increasingly assertive, confident Turkey, as well as tiny Qatar, determined to punch above its weight.

America has had its Mideast moments, not the least when Obama took office in 2009, pledging a new era in U.S. relations with the Muslim world. But the administration's failure to sustain a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace process or to persuade Israel to stop building settlements on land claimed by Palestinians has bitterly disappointed those who had hoped Obama would bring change, said Rami Khouri, director of the Fares Institute of Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

Another moment of hope came in 2005, when then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered a stirring call for democratization on the leafy campus of the American University in Cairo, just steps from the center of the Egyptian revolt now underway in the city's Tahrir Square.

"The day is coming when the promise of a fully free and democratic world, once thought impossible, will also seem inevitable," she said, in a speech that triggered a brief but transitory scramble by regional leaders to implement political reforms. "The people of Egypt should be at the forefront of this great journey, just as you have led this region through the great journeys of the past."

That Egyptians are now at the head of the region's long-suppressed demand for democratization comes in spite of, not because of, the United States, Khouri said.

"Nobody's listening to America anymore," he said. "It's become irrelevant."

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