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Smart-Power Whiplash

During her Senate confirmation hearing in January of 2009, Hillary Clinton described smart power — her preferred approach to American foreign policy — as “picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation.” Two years later, we’re finally getting a sense of what this means. Recent events and statements have been clarifying.

When the situation is a conference on democracy, the right tool is a pro-democracy statement. Thus Clinton said to the attendees at this year’s Forum for the Future in Doha, Qatar, “While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others, people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. . . . The region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.”

But when the situation is an actual and potentially democratic Arab revolt, the right tool is fence-sitting. When Clinton was asked for her thoughts on the popular uprising against the corrupt regime in Tunisia, she said, “We are not taking sides in it, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution of it.”

When the situation is the announcement of planned elections after said uprising, the right tool is, once again, a pro-democracy statement. Today, after Clinton spoke with Tunisian Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane and interim Tunisian leader Mohammed Ghannouchi, she told the press, “I’m encouraged by the direction that they are setting towards inclusive elections that will be held as soon as practicable.”

But when the situation is once again a potentially democratic Arab uprising, the right tool is urging restraint and giving cover to the repressive Arab regime being opposed. Today thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets to protest the Mubarak government, and Reuters reports the following: “U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday urged all sides in Egypt to exercise restraint following street protests and said she believed the Egyptian government was stable and looking for ways to respond to its people’s aspirations.”

For those playing along at home, that’s defending democracy and Hosni Mubarak in the same day. Imagine how difficult it would be to practice smart power if you actually believed in something.


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