Clinton cleaning up after Obama’s Middle East policy

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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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.

The collision between the consequence of Obama’s outreach and most Americans’ expectations isn’t a surprise for some Islam-watchers.

“The White House warmly applauded the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and actively aided the one in Libya, while brushing aside abundant indications that each was powered largely by Islamic supremacists who would deny rights to women,” said Robert Spencer, an expert on Islam and a best-selling author. “By helping pave the way for pro-Sharia regimes in the ‘Arab Spring’ countries, they’ve become women’s worst enemy,” he said.

Clinton is now stepping into this gap, partly because Obama is focused on his 2012 election, and partly because U.S. policymakers need to influence the newly empowered Islamist governments and movements.

On Dec. 14, for example, Clinton subtly challenged Obama’s conciliatory approach to the Islamist parties.

She used a speech at a department-hosted conference on religious freedom to taunt Islamist advocates and governments about the possible weakness of their religious faith. “Everyone one of us who is a religious person knows there are some who may not support or approve of our religion, but is our religion so weak that statements of disapproval cause us to lose our faith?” she said to attendees, which included numerous officials from Islamic countries in the 57-national Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Clinton’s gibe was very different from the conciliatory message Obama offered during his widely praised 2009 speech in Cairo. “For over a thousand years, [the Islamic seminary] Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning… [Religious] tension has been fed by colonialism … and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations,” he declared.

“Moreover, the sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam,” Obama added, without addressing the clashes between Western ideals and the 1,400 year-old tenets of Islam.

The issue of religious freedom has been highlighted by recent riots in Egypt, where local Islamists — who are tacitly aided by government officials — have killed Coptic Christians protesters, kidnapped Coptic girls and burned their churches. There are roughly 8 million Copts in Egypt.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideological allies within the more pious Salafi movement are using a three-stage election process to win almost 70 percent of votes from the country’s mostly rural and uneducated populace. This win is far greater than was expected by the State Department or by the New York Times, which predicted the brotherhood would only get 10 percent of the vote.

This underestimation of the Islamist groups’ nascent power was illustrated by Obama’s May 19 statement, where he said “it’s no coincidence that one of the leaders of [Eypt’s] Tahrir Square was an executive for Google.  That energy now needs to be channeled, in country after country, so that economic growth can solidify the accomplishments of the street.”

Subsequently, the executive, Wael Ghonim, was physically blocked by brotherhood officials from addressing the crowd in the square, and has since withdrawn from Egyptian politics.

Clinton also challenged Obama’s limited goals in Afghanistan by urging protection for women’s rights. “We will not waver in our requirement that in order to rejoin Afghanistan’s political life, [Taliban] insurgents must not only renounce al-Qaida and violence, they must also pledge to respect the laws and constitution of Afghanistan — including the rights of women,” she said in a Dec. 16 speech in New York.

That’s far more ambitious that Obama’s goal, which Vice President Joe Biden described as getting only the Taliban’s agreement to reject its religious ally, al-Qaida, and to join the Afghan government. “We are in a position where if Afghanistan ceased and desisted from being a haven for people who do damage and have as a target the United States of America and their allies, that’s good enough” to justify a deal with the Taliban, Biden said Dec. 15 interview with the Daily Beast.

“The Taliban per se is not our enemy,” Biden said, even though it is allied with al-Qaida and dedicated to the persecution of women, barring them from education and employment and forcing them to wear cloth covers.

Prior to its overthrow, the Taliban also killed gays by throwing them from buildings, as directed by Islamic texts.

On Dec. 6, Clinton used a speech in Geneva to challenge Islamic countries to establish rights and respect for gays and lesbians. “Gay people are born into and belong in every society around the world,”  she said, including in “all faiths.”

Nuland downplayed Clinton’s new visibility as a response to the rise of the Islamist parties. “She’s played a large role all the way through,’ Nuland said. “I would argue that what we have are the unbelievable historical changes of 2011, where the U.S. has had to speak out and stand on the side of our values and our interests.”

But the new Dec. 19 action plan on women highlights Clinton’s growing role.

“It was an administration initiative, led by the White House and State… the Department has a cell [of staff members] that works on these issues,” said Nuland.

According to a White House statement, the policy to aid women offers “a fundamental change in how the U.S. will approach its diplomatic, military, and development-based support to women in areas of conflict, by ensuring that their perspectives and considerations of gender are woven into the fabric of how the United States approaches peace processes, conflict prevention, the protection of civilians, and humanitarian assistance.”

The new policy will push government agencies and aid groups to document their efforts to aid women, said Shoemaker. Especially in U.S. agencies that deal with Arab countries, the goal of aiding women is a low priority and gets little funding, she said.

For example, Obama waged a war to remove Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, but refused to commit ground troops. Without ground troops, the United States has little influence over the post-war government. In October, leading figures in the new government promised to reestablish Islamic polygamy and Sharia law. “That’s been brought up a lot” during feminists’ discussions in Europe, said Shoemaker.

Clinton underlined the Libyan problem Dec. 16. “At a conference organized by women activists in Tripoli last month, the leaders of the transition acknowledged that Libyan women had played a vital role in the revolution and promised they would be full and equal participants in a new Libya. Well, so far, out of 30 new government ministers, two are women,” Clinton said.

In Tunisia, the brotherhood-affiliated Ennahda Party won 40 percent of the parliament’s seats in an October election, giving it the dominant role in the country’s politics. Again, Clinton has highlighted the democratic pushback, saying “in Tunisia, women strongly reacted to suggestions that the personal status code might be amended to roll back their rights.”

However, Clinton, like Obama, does not tag Islam for the difficulties faced by women in the Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Shoemaker said the U.S. government needs to get involved in Arab politics immediately.

The U.S. government “can have a very significant impact in pushing this issues” because the new Arab governments have not yet established policies that sideline women, she said. Women have played an important role in ousting the dictatorships, she said, and it would be “inexcusable… if we leave out those very people who are working for those goals.”

“It is easier to make broad pronouncements, but when it comes to the immediate crisis, that’s the real challenge — whether this will be implemented effectively,” Shoemaker said.

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