Saturday, February 19, 2011

UN Veto Criticism: What Does the US do Now?

Disappointment has surfaced in the Palestinian Territories over the US veto of a UN security council resolution condemning settlement building as "illegal." Earlier today, a top Fatah official, Tawfik Terawi called for a "day of rage" next Friday against the United States, condemning the US as "liars who pretend to support democracy and peace."

While the harsh criticism does not come from the Palestinian Authority itself, the linkage of days of rage and the veto is a turning point. While most Americans will not draw an immediate linkage between US policy towards Egypt and the UN resolution veto, many in the Arab world may do so. This may create a downturn in Arab attitudes towards the US and the Obama administration, which many Arabs feel has not followed through in their hour of need.

Given the complexity of the entire situation in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Yemen, caution on Washington's part is warranted. However, the administration must continue to walk a fine line between becoming a lightning rod for the frustration of protesters and upholding its stated commitment to democracy and peace.

To successfully navigate the firestorm in the Middle East, the administration must:

1) Take the long-term view. The nuanced policies of the administration thus far indicate that it is indeed looking ahead into the future. Tensions may be high now, but running to one side or the other too quickly could prove problematic for US policy a year or five years from now.

2) Be realistic about the chances for democratic reform. The administration is doing this as well. It is unlikely that every protest will be successful. Protesters learn from their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, but authoritarian leaders learn too. The violence in Bahrain and today in Libya is clear evidence that these leaders are not waiting around to be pushed out of office.

3) Take a strong stand when Arab leaders cross red lines. Now that the protests are widespread, the administration can criticize in a general way and spend less capital on the risk of alienating specific leaders who may not actually be going anywhere. Covertly, the administration should also make clear to leaders that violently targeting peaceful protesters will have economic repercussions for their regimes. Reports suggest that President Obama is personally invested in the plight of these protesters. The administration should leverage that investment to pressure leaders using repressive and violent tactics.

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