An Opportunity To Make Good On The Cairo Speech

Yemen has now apparently joined Tunisia and Egypt on the list of Middle Eastern countries experiencing large anti-government demonstrations:

Thousands of Yemenis took to the streets in the country’s capital and other regions on Thursday to demand a change of government, in demonstrations that organizers said were inspired by protests in Tunisia that toppled the president there.

At least 10,000 protesters led by opposition members and youths activists gathered at Sana University and around 6,000 more elsewhere in the Yemeni capital of Sana, according to local news media reports.

The government responded by sending a large number of security forces into the streets, said Nasser Arabyee, a Yemeni journalist in Sana reached by phone.

While it’s good to see the Obama administration coming out more strongly behind the protesters, it’s imperative now that the administration formulate a more robust and strategic response to these events. While I think it’s generally correct for the U.S. not to simply inject itself into the demonstrations, it’s also worth noting that the U.S. has significant influence, and, given that we’ve sponsored them for decades, responsibility to pressure these regimes away from violent crackdowns.

Many progressives were thrilled by what we saw as a promise in the president’s Cairo speech to move away from a Middle East policy in which political freedom was subordinated to the perceived imperatives of counter-radicalism, in which “democracy promotion” amounted to little more than a cynical veiled threat to get regimes to do what we want. We’ve been likewise disappointed at the lack of follow through. These continuing uprisings offer the president an opportunity to make good on that promise.

To that end, it’s worth revisiting a paper written by my colleague Brian Katulis back in February 2009 urging President Obama to reclaim the mantle of democracy promotion, and offering a number of steps that the administration could take toward developing a more progressive strategy for the region.