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Does the Administration Have A Policy on the Middle East?

In today’s press briefing, reporters asked press secretary Jay Carney whether the Obama administration has any identifiable policy with regard to events in the Middle East. The questioning was rather pointed:

QUESTION: On Libya, the president’s reaction has been fairly muted and low-key, in terms of what he’s said publicly about it. And I was wondering if you could explain that.
When the Egypt unrest was occurring, he made several public statements. Does he plan to make any public statements on Libya? And what’s going on — what’s driving the decision to be more low-key on this?
CARNEY: Well, let me just say that the president strongly condemns, and condemned in his statement on Friday, the violence, the bloodshed perpetrated by the Libyan government in Libya. The secretary of state has strongly condemned what’s happened in Libya.
The president will be meeting with Secretary Clinton, his regular meeting with the secretary of state this afternoon. We will have some announcements out of that meeting. The president will address this issue either later this afternoon or tomorrow, so you will hear from the president relatively soon on Libya.
But let me step back and again make the point that this administration has very strongly condemned what’s happened in Libya.
The violence is abhorrent. It is completely unacceptable. And the bloodshed must stop.
This administration has made that clear. And we’ve made it clear both through the statements of the president and the secretary of state, also through our work very closely with the United Nations Security Council, their very strong statement, which I’m sure you’ve all read, of which we are a party.
And we continue to work with the U.N. in reviewing various options for actions that can be taken to compel Libya to stop — to end this terrible bloodshed.
QUESTION: Are steps like a no-fly zone under consideration?
CARNEY: A lot of options are under review: sanctions, other options.
But I also want to make clear that we — our thoughts and prayers are with the families of victims in Libya.
And we’re also focused, as I think many of you know, on the safety of American citizens who are in Libya. It’s a very high priority for this administration, the safety of American citizens. And we’re making sure that those Americans are able to be evacuated.
QUESTION: Can you articulate a policy that the Obama administration has for this sweeping wave of protests that are breaking out in North African and Middle Eastern countries?
Obviously, as has been said by your administration many times, nobody could have predicted that all this was going to happen. But certainly the president and administrations long before this president have been articulating the need for democracy and for political reform.
Is there a plan in place here?
CARNEY: There is a policy. And we have been very clear about this. And what is important about this policy is that it does apply to every country in the region.
First of all, violence against peaceful protesters is unacceptable.
The rights — the universal rights of the citizens, the peoples of these countries, must be respected: the right to peaceful assembly, the right to free speech, the right to access of — to information.
And the need for reform is paramount.
These are principles that the president has enunciated when he’s talked about every country in the region that’s experienced unrest.
QUESTION: I won’t dispute that. Those are certainly the principles that he has consistently articulated. But that’s not really necessarily a policy for what to do in this country, what to do in that country, this country.
Egypt has a functioning military. Libya has a complete vacuum, a lack of infrastructure. Is there — is there a policy for not just beliefs that the president holds or America holds, but steps that the country will take given unrest in the various countries?
CARNEY: Well, the principles guide the policy.
And — and you are right to note that each country is different, and the president’s made that point. Every country is different. Every country has a different tradition, different institutions. And — and a different relationship in some cases with the United States.
But is important that — that those overall principles guide our actions.
And what I would say is that in each case we are guided by the principles and also by the fact that the unrest, the demonstration by the peoples of these countries of their desire for greater political — greater access to the political system, greater freedom, for rights, we support. We support those aspirations of those people.
And we are — but we are not dictating outcomes and we are not telling the people of any country who their leader should be or should not be. That is up for the people of Libya to decide, just as it is up for the people of Egypt to decide.
QUESTION: Is it fair to call this policy, as it’s formulated, ad hoc or ad libbed?
CARNEY: No, I — I think quite the contrary. It’s — it’s been — there is a very clear set of principles that guide the policy, and I think that when you talk about broad policies in the foreign policy arena, the ones that are not ad hoc are the ones that are guided by a broad set of principles and not situation-specific or country- specific.
Which is not to say, as I said, that how we handle or react or act proactively with regard to the situation in every country doesn’t differ depending on the country because we obviously want — you know, we’re looking for positive outcomes.
QUESTION: This is my final question. I’m sorry (inaudible) — you guys are prepared. You have a policy for if this were to happen in Jordan, if this were to happen in Saudi Arabia, if this were to happen in Morocco? You have plans for all of these different countries?
CARNEY: I’m not sure what you mean by “plans.”
But we would be, without speculating on what might happen, our policies — our policy in the region and toward the unrest we’ve seen in these countries has been consistent and would apply going forward.
QUESTION: If there is a clear set of principles, why has the president chosen to not enunciate them for several days now? The last statement was from you on Friday, not from — it was the president’s words, but delivered by you on Air Force One.
The president, when he comes out and makes a statement — I know you’re saying might do it later today, maybe tomorrow. In the meantime, hundreds of people have been killed in Libya.
So why has he chosen to not enunciate those very principles you say are clear?
CARNEY: Well, I was merely a vehicle for that statement. The president puts out statements on paper sometimes. I happened to be on Air Force One and read it aloud. But it was also put out and disseminated everywhere on paper. …
There are now obviously various Libyan officials who are leaving the Gadhafi government, and one has come forward to say that he believes he has evidence that Gadhafi himself ordered the Pan Am bombing in 1988, which obviously is of great interest to the American people: large loss of life, huge terror attack.
What does the administration make of those reports? Are you doing anything to verify them?
CARNEY: I don’t have anything on that for you.
Obviously, we’re focused right now on — on — on the events that are unfolding in Libya, how we can work together with our partners internationally to take the kind of steps that will bring about the end of the bloodshed and the protection of the rights of the citizens, the people of Libya, and also the protection of American citizens still in Libya.
So I don’t have anything for you specifically on that.

My favorite answer is, “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘plans.’” I think a fair paraphrase of the colloquy is that the administration doesn’t have a policy. Nor, apparently, does it have any plan for what to do if the current unrest spreads to additional countries, as seems possible.
Carney was asked specifically whether the administration has remained quiet about Libya out of concern for the Americans who may be stranded there:

QUESTION: Is he more cautious because of what you said about the Americans that are on the ground in Libya, is that a key driving force here to make sure they’re safe and if he went out there and spoke it might backfire?
CARNEY: The president is obviously concerned about the safety of American citizens. No question. And that is an important factor in any country.
And the circumstances of American citizens are different in each country. The protections they have, say, at the embassy, might be different in one country than the protections they have in another. All of those factors are important in how we approach these situations and how the president looks at them.
He is also extremely concerned and alarmed by the horrific violence and bloodshed that’s happened in Libya. And we have made that clear and he will make that clear, as I said, this afternoon or tomorrow.

You can make of that answer what you will.

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