'US must stand by Arab Spring nations'

2012-09-13 09:00
A vehicle sits smouldering in flames after being set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi. (AFP, File)

A vehicle sits smouldering in flames after being set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi. (AFP, File)

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Washington - The Obama administration must stay the course in Arab Spring countries and help them thwart rising militancy, experts said on Wednesday, even as the deaths of four diplomats grimly highlighted the dangers lurking in the young democracies.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both vowed to stand by Libya as it emerges from four decades of dictatorship under Muammar Gaddafi, despite the brutal militant attack on the US mission in Benghazi.

"The attack will not break the bonds between the United States and Libya," Obama pledged after Ambassador Chris Stevens and three co-workers were killed in the violence unleashed in a raid late on Tuesday.

But within hours came calls for a re-think of Middle East policy, and pleas for a greater US role in helping the Syrian opposition, as it did in Libya, appeared likely to go unheeded for some time.

"This kind of event underlines the... extent to which there are militant groups in most of these Arab Spring countries which are going to be looking for ways to exploit the new political Wild East situation," John Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said.

"And that's going make presidents think two or three times before they jump on board the liberty bandwagon."

Building new societies

With Obama fighting to be elected to a second White House term on 6 November, risky decisions likely to be unpopular with the war-weary American public look headed for the backburner.

But experts insisted on a longer-term view, stressing that new societies were still being built in those countries that have thrown off the shackles of decades-long dictatorships.

"The Arab Spring is still in motion. It is not over. The Arab Spring has delivered positive results and negative results," said Ed Husain, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

It was "the first time in almost 70 years that we have seen mass protests across the Arab world that more or less want to have better ties with the rest of the world but also dignity in Arab societies, and that can only be a positive thing".

The United States should stay engaged and work with allies to try to stabilise countries such as Yemen, where the new leadership is battling the deadliest branch of al-Qaeda with US help, agreed Middle East expert Brian Katulis on a conference call by the National Security Network.

"Some may say that this situation in Libya would lead to further hesitations or disengagement from the Syria issue, and I don't think that's what will happen. I don't think it's the right path," he added.

Democracy from scratch

American leadership in the region is "essential", said Katulis, adding that "it's not just talking about our leadership, it's actually standing by the diplomats and others who are risking their lives day in and day out to do this work."

The first blush of the Arab Spring has long faded and countries are getting down to the hard work of building a democracy from scratch.

"I think that the growth of democracy in the Middle East is going to produce a lot more of this, and in some ways we've got to tighten our seatbelts, because democracy is going to bring forward the anti-Americanism that is widespread in the Middle East," said Landis.

In Syria, rebel opposition groups having been fighting since March 2011 to oust President Bashar Assad in a civil war that human rights observers say has cost about 26 000 lives.

Despite increasing concerns about atrocities on human rights and infiltration by militants possibly linked to al-Qaeda, Washington has stood firm in its refusal to arm the Syrian opposition.

"Obama is very loathe to get more deeply involved in Syria because he doesn't want to be on the same side as al-Qaeda," Landis said.

Majority of Libyans 'disgusted'

Washington director for Human Rights Watch Tom Malinowski said the attack in Benghazi should not be allowed to derail US efforts in Libya, insisting the country "has been making a good deal of progress for the last several months".

He highlighted the recent successful elections during the call with the National Security Network, but warned that "the Achilles heel of this revolution in Libya has always been the continuing power of armed militia groups".

"The vast, vast majority of Libyans are disgusted and ashamed about what has happened. They are not responsible for what happened," Malinowski said.

However, he warned it was the responsibility of Libyan leaders to confront the armed militant groups to prevent such attacks happening again.

"It's absolutely necessary to save their revolution and their ability to have a relationship with the United States," Malinowski added.

Veteran Republican Senator John McCain put it bluntly, telling Fox News that if the US withdraws its support, the region could become a breeding ground for al-Qaeda.

If the Benghazi attack provokes the United States to end "our support for these people, to leave them on their own without our assistance and guidance, then the bad guys win, then the Islamists and terrorists win", he said.

Read more on:    al-qaeda  |  barack obama  |  egypt  |  us  |  syria  |  libya  |  syria conflict  |  north africa  |  uprisings
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