The Obama administration on Wednesday sharpened its condemnation of a bloody crackdown on Libyan opposition demonstrators as it broadened its outreach to government officials, dissidents, rights activists and youth in other Arab nations across a Middle East that is seething with unrest.
Amid the tumult rocking the region, Obama condemned the violence in Libya in the sharpest terms Washington has yet used and directed his administration to prepare a full range of options, including possible sanctions that could freeze the assets and ban travel to the U.S. by Libyan officials. He said he was sending Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Geneva for international talks aimed at stopping the bloodshed and formulating a unified global message to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
"The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous and it is unacceptable," Obama told reporters after meeting with Clinton at the White House. "So are threats and orders to shoot peaceful protesters and further punish the people of Libya. These actions violate international norms and every standard of common decency. This violence must stop."
Obama did not, however, lay out specific measures he would take if Gadhafi did not respond to the appeals. In part, U.S. officials said, this was because of fears that Gadhafi might order reprisals against Americans and other foreigners still in Libya if threatened with sanctions. A ferry carrying 35 U.S. diplomats and family members along with an unknown number of private Americans was to have left Tripoli for the Mediterranean island of Malta on Wednesday but was delayed due to poor weather.
Fearing an anti-American backlash elsewhere from protesters who toppled two longtime U.S. allies and are threatening other friendly Arab regimes, Obama urged the region to embrace reforms. His comments signaled the administration is seeking to align itself with reformists in post-revolt Tunisia and Egypt and to be seen as a force for democratic change in Bahrain and other Persian Gulf states to blunt a possible rise of extremism and preserve U.S. influence there.
"Even as we are focused on the urgent situation in Libya," Obama said, "our efforts continue to address the events taking place elsewhere, including how the international community can most effectively support the peaceful transition to democracy in both Tunisia and in Egypt."
Before Obama spoke, Clinton participated in an online discussion with young Egyptians who spearheaded the rebellion that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, a major recipient of U.S. aid over the past three decades. Her Internet appearance came as the administration's third-ranking diplomat visited Tunis after a several-day stop in Cairo and the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East opened a five-nation tour of the Persian Gulf. U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is already in the Gulf region visiting U.S. allies.
Mullen's trip along with the dispatch of Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns to Egypt and Tunisia and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman to Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates come as Washington tries to prevent a rise in anti-U.S. sentiment in the region.
While Mullen is concentrating on military alliances, Burns and Feltman were shoring up relations with government officials and affirming the U.S. commitment "to our longstanding partnerships in the region as well as universal human rights, freedom of expression and the promotion of democratic principles," the State Department said.
They were also reiterating that recent events clarified the urgent need to respond to popular demands for reform and offering U.S. assistance in doing so.
But the difficulties of promoting America in the Arab world were underscored in Clinton's appearance on Egypt's www.Masrawy.com, a website designed mainly for young Egyptians.
In a 30-minute, mostly Arabic-language question-and-answer session, Clinton was peppered with questions from skeptical youth about America's long and close partnership with Mubarak despite the repressive nature of his regime. She was asked why the U.S. did not seem to support Mubarak's opponents until they had won and if the United States would support real democracy in Egypt even if Islamists took power.
Clinton said again and again that although Mubarak was a U.S. ally, successive American presidents had continuously, although unsuccessfully, pressed him to reform and criticized his regime's abuses.
"The United States has relations with many countries whose values we do not always agree with and whose actions we often criticize," she said. "But we do have relationships with China, with Russia, with Egypt in the past that are very complicated and which operate on several levels at once."
And she stressed over and over that the United States supported the aspirations of the Egyptian people and hailed their nonviolent protest as an inspiration to the world. She also repeatedly offered U.S. assistance.
"I am very proud of what Egyptian young people have done," she said. "You have set such an extraordinary example of nonviolent, peaceful protest. We will stand with you. We want to be your partners. We are inspired by you and we believe in you, and the United States is ready to assist in any way that would be appropriate."
At the same time, she warned that democracy was not easy and that they should be patient but persevere through difficulties ahead.
"I hope you will understand that having brought down a regime and having made it clear you will settle for nothing other than democracy, that you understand it's going to take commitment and determination to translate the energy and the spirit of Tahrir Square into the day-to-day work of building a democracy," she said. "I have no doubt in my mind that this can be done as long as people do not get exhausted, frustrated, give up too soon, because the process is sometimes very hard to deal with."
Another theme Clinton returned to was the peaceful nature of the protests, which she said repudiated the message of al-Qaida and other extremist groups.
"Al-Qaida's position is there is no such thing as peaceful protest; there is no such thing as democracy," she said. "Well, I hope they were watching on television as Egyptian young people proved them wrong on both of those points."