By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States must look past the violence and extremism that has erupted after the "Arab Spring" revolutions and boost support for the region's young democracies to forge long-term security, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday.
Clinton, seeking to reinforce the Obama administration's Middle East policy following a wave of anti-American violence and last month's deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, said Washington cannot be deterred by "the violent acts of a small number of extremists."
"We recognize that these transitions are not America's to manage, and certainly not ours to win or lose," Clinton said in a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
"But we have to stand with those who are working every day to strengthen democratic institutions, defend universal rights, and drive inclusive economic growth. That will produce more capable partners and more durable security over the long term."
Middle East unrest has become fodder for the U.S. presidential campaign, where Republican candidate Mitt Romney has sought to portray President Barack Obama as an ineffectual leader who has left the United States vulnerable at a time of international crisis.
Romney and other Republicans have focused on the September 11 Benghazi attack, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, accusing the Obama administration of security and intelligence lapses in what officials now describe as a terrorist attack.
Clinton noted that the Benghazi incident was the subject of an official probe and vowed the United States would track down those responsible for the attack.
But she stressed that U.S. diplomats must engage with an uncertain and dangerous world if they are to promote and protect U.S. interests. "We will never prevent every act of violence or terrorism, or achieve perfect security. Our people cannot live in bunkers and do their jobs," she said.
Clinton acknowledged that political turmoil in Libya and Yemen, the rise of Islamist parties to power in Egypt and Tunisia and the expanding crisis in Syria were all tests for U.S. leadership - but said more engagement, not less, was the only way forward.
"For the United States, supporting democratic transitions is not a matter of idealism. It is a strategic necessity," she said.
And she pointed to the "undimmed promise of the Arab Spring" in the backlash against extremist groups in Libya and Tunisia, saying that in many cases newly empowered Arab societies were standing up for peaceful, pluralistic democratic principles.
Clinton pointed to the challenge in Egypt, where on Friday liberals and Islamists clashed in the first street violence since Islamist President Mohamed Mursi took power in June, injuring more than 100 people.
"We stand with the Egyptian people in their quest for universal freedoms and protections," Clinton said. "Egypt's international standing does depend both on peaceful relations with its neighbors and also on the choices it makes at home and whether or not it fulfills its own promises to its own people."
The Obama administration has earmarked some $1 billion in assistance for countries emerging from the Arab Spring revolutions, and has asked Congress for a separate $770 million fund tied to specific political and economic reforms.
But Republican lawmakers remain wary, citing political uncertainties in the region and the need for careful accounting in an era of fast-rising budget deficits.
Clinton urged the lawmakers to release the money, citing U.S.-sponsored programs and security partnerships she said could both reinforce democratic gains and increase pressure on extremist groups.
"We have, as always, to be clear-eyed about the threat of violent extremism. A year of democratic transition was never going to drain away reservoirs of radicalism built up through decades of dictatorship," she said.
(Reporting by Andrew Quinn; editing by Todd Eastham)
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