WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama Tuesday warned autocratic US allies they cannot crush the Middle East’s youthful “hunger” for change and offered “moral support” to Iranian protesters defying a crackdown.
Obama walked a fine line between offering American support for political uprisings after the Egypt revolt and openly offending states that use iron-fisted rule yet have guaranteed US interests for decades.
“We have sent a strong message to our allies in the region saying — ‘let’s look at Egypt’s example, as opposed to Iran’s example.'”
In his first press conference since uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt roiled the Middle East and challenged US policy assumptions, Obama warned regional leaders “You can’t maintain power through coercion.”
Obama did not mention specific states by name, but unrest raged Tuesday in Algeria, Bahrain and Yemen, and analysts are beginning to raise questions about the long-term stability of states like US ally Jordan, and even Saudi Arabia.
“At some level, in any society, there has to be consent,” Obama said.
“The message that we’ve sent, even before the demonstrations in Egypt, has been, to friend and foe alike, that the world is changing,” Obama said.
“You have a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity.
“If you are governing these countries, you’ve got to get out ahead of change, you can’t be behind the curve.”
Obama argued that despite criticisms he had been too slow to embrace protestors, that he had been on the “right side of history” as Egypt’s swift revolt unfolded, but said US could not dictate events.
“What we didn’t do was pretend that we could dictate the outcome in Egypt, because we can’t,” Obama said, praising the country’s military for giving off the “right signals” on reform after President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
The president, who has sought to improve US ties in the Middle East said that the in the age of smartphones and Twitter, regional governments could no longer expect to simply crush dissent.
“My belief is that, as a consequence of what’s happening in Tunisia and Egypt, governments in that region are starting to understand this.
“My hope is — is that they can operate in a way that is responsive to this hunger for change but always do so in a way that doesn’t lead to violence.”
Obama also bolstered calls by the United States in recent days for Iran’s leadership to permit its people the same outlet for protest that the people of Egypt were able to exploit.
“What’s been different is the Iranian government’s response which is to shoot people and beat people and arrest people.”
After two protesters died in demonstrations called by opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi in support of Arab uprisings, Obama said he hoped Iranians would maintain the “courage” to express yearnings for freedom.
Obama’s remarks were his most direct recent comments on Iranian protests more than a year after domestic critics accused his government of not speaking up loudly enough during demonstrations against disputed Iranian elections.
His administration, now sending Twitter messages into Iran in Farsi, has openly sought to use ride the shock-waves of Mubarak’s ouster to build pressure on the Iranian government, charging it is “scared” of its people.
But Obama insisted that the United States could not dictate what happens in Iran any more than it did in Egypt.
“What we can do is lend moral support to those who are seeking a better life for themselves.”
During repeated answers on the Middle East, Obama admitted that democracy could be “messy” and pose challenges for framing coherent US policy and that the unrest would be challenging for his Israeli-Palestinian peace drive.
But he also argued the wave of change in the region could offer long-term benefits.
“I think the opportunity is that, when you have the kinds of young people who were in (Cairo’s) Tahrir Square, feeling that they have hope and they have opportunity, then they’re less likely to channel all their frustrations into anti-Israeli sentiment or anti-Western sentiment.
“Because they see the prospect of building their own country. That’s a positive.”