Hillary Clinton gave a good speech today, excoriating Arab leaders for their lousy record on reform and bluntly warning that if they don't shape up, they'll face growing extremism and alienation among their beleaguered populations.
"In too many places, in too many ways, the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand," she said. "The new and dynamic Middle East that I have seen needs firmer ground if it is to take root and grow everywhere."
And she warned that "others will fill the vacuum" if "leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute."
"Extremist elements, terrorist groups, and others who would prey on desperation and poverty are already out there, appealing for allegiance and competing for influence," she added.
Clinton's talk, at a democracy conference here in Qatar, took place against the backdrop of spiraling unrest in Tunisia, growing tension in Gaza, and the collapse of the Lebanese unity government led by Sunni billionaire Saad Hariri. She seemed fired up, perhaps because she had met earlier with civil society activists from across the region and during her previous stops in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Oman, and Yemen.
According to Stephen McInerney, head of the Project on Middle East Democracy, Clinton struck the right notes.
"Secretary Clinton's remarks today are the clearest sign yet that she understands the vital need for genuine reform and progress in the region and the dangers of maintaining the status quo," he said in an email. "I think we're seeing the impact of recent developments in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere around the region, as well as the impact of the Secretary's meetings with civil society on each stop of this trip."
Still, things are not looking good for the U.S. position in the Middle East right now. The peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are hopelessly stalled; Lebanon is in shambles; traditional U.S. allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are losing influence. There's definitely growing frustration with the authoritarian order across the region, though not necessarily to America's advantage.
Improbable as it may have seemed a month ago, much depends on how events play out in Tunisia. A relatively peaceful transition of power could inspire and empower reforms across the region. An even bloodier crackdown could provoke more destructive feelings of despair and empower radicals. Or, most likely of all, the Middle East will continue to limp along as it has been, never really advancing but never really dissolving into chaos. We'll see.