February 13, 2011 in Nation/World

Obama call for reform upsets some U.S. allies

Leaders question support they’d get
Paul Richter Tribune Washington bureau

WASHINGTON – The White House says it is pushing friendly but autocratic governments in the Middle East to accelerate political and economic reforms, a message that is raising fears in those countries about the strength of U.S. commitment to its allies.

A day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was driven from power by a popular uprising, President Barack Obama called Jordan’s King Abdullah, among others, to emphasize American support for greater political openness. Obama expressed his “conviction that democracy will bring more – not less – stability in the region,” according to a White House account of the calls.

Diplomats from some Middle East nations say the administration’s response to the Egyptian uprising has made them question how much U.S. support they would receive in the face of their own anti-government demonstrations.

Leaders in the region “didn’t miss it when Obama came out to say was time for Mubarak to go,” said one Arab diplomat.

U.S. officials also have been trying to reassure allies of Washington’s continued backing. The State Department, in particular, has been sending out messages that it seeks regional stability and intends to stand by its friends. And Obama’s calls have affirmed a “strong commitment to supporting a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East in close consultation with all our regional partners,” the White House said.

But the administration’s tepid public backing for Mubarak and its backroom machinations to push him aside have provoked an alarmed reaction from officials in Saudi Arabia, other Persian Gulf states and Israel.

Saudi officials have complained for days about the “blatant interference” of foreign governments in the Egyptian crisis. The White House said it would not comment Saturday on a Times of London report that Saudi King Abdullah chastised Obama in a Jan. 29 telephone call for failing to offer more support to Mubarak.

But a senior administration official suggested other governments shouldn’t expect too much U.S. help if they fail to make reforms and face mass protests.

When Middle Eastern officials ask who the United States would support in a struggle between governments and their people, the U.S. message is that “if people are demonstrating, it’s because they believe very strongly that governments are underperforming,” the official said.

There continues to be a sharp division within the administration over how much pressure to exert on allies whose cooperation is critical to U.S. priorities of counterterrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort and containing Iran. Jordan, for example, is the only country in the region other than Egypt to have a peace treaty with Israel.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s remarks last week favoring an “orderly” transition to reform in Egypt reflects the desire within the administration to ensure that any democratic opening is conducted without the upheaval seen in Cairo.

But Robert Danin, a Mideast specialist and former State Department official, said the administration needs to bluntly warn other governments that they can expect the treatment Mubarak received unless they move to meet the demands of their people.

“We owe it to tell them that we are your friend, but that there are limits to how far we can stand by them,” said Danin, now with the Council on Foreign Relations. “They don’t have a blank check.”

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