Clinton cleaning up after Obama’s Middle East policy

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is taking on a new role — patching fractures in President Barack Obama’s Muslim outreach policy.

Clinton’s role is highlighted by a new White House policy announced Dec. 19, which makes the roles and rights of women a central element of U.S. foreign policy. The policy is titled “The United States National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security.”

Clinton announced the new policy with two speeches in New York and at Georgetown University, but also advertised her growing role with several prior speeches that championed the role of women, gays and religious debate in emerging Middle Eastern democracies.

Her new role comes as she and other feminists increasingly voice their worries about the impact on Arab women of the burgeoning Islamist political movements that are religiously committed to the subordination of women.

“We’ve seen this already happening in countries where proposed legislation rolls back women’s rights,” said Jolynn Shoemaker, director of the Women in International Security organization. In Egypt and Libya, “it is a very critical time,” said Shoemaker, who is based at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Events have driven the increasing crescendo of advocacy” by Clinton, said Victoria Nuland, Clinton’s press secretary. “There is certainly no gap between the White House and the State Department. It is Secretary Clinton’s job to implement and advocate for the president’s foreign policy,” she said.

But Obama’s initial outreach policy in 2009 invited the Islamist parties to pay a large role in the region’s politics. For example, he insisted that several members of the Muslim Brotherhood be allowed to attend his much-lauded 2009 speech in Cairo.

Much of that outreach was done by Obama himself, aided by Rashad Hussain, Obama’s ambassador to the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. For example, Obama has frequently met or phoned Turkish president Recep Erdogan, an Islamist who also heads the Justice and Development Party.

This year, however, Obama reacted to the growing role of the Islamists by offering some support for Western ideas. On May 19, for example, Obama declared that peoples’ rights “include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders — whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.”

However, in that speech and since then, Obama has focused on pressuring Israel to make further concessions prior to hoped-for talks with Arab and Islamic advocates.

Also, Obama and White House officials have refused to condemn the Islamist parties’ political gains, or their advocacy of policies that subordinate women in the workplace, in politics and in family life.

“The fact of the matter is, the democratic process is what’s important,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Nov. 28, just after the Islamist parties won a clear majority of votes in the first round of Egyptian elections. “We need to let the process run its course, continue to espouse our firm support for democratic principles and for civilian control of the government, and then judge the outcome by the actions of those who prevail,” Carney said.