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Clinton: Changing Arab leaders not enough to bring reform

By Elise Labott, CNN

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Clinton speaks at the U.S.-Islamic Forum
  • Clinton warns Middle East revolutions "just a mirage" without real reform
  • U.S. Secretary of State's comments contained in speech at U.S.-Islamic forum
  • Obama administration criticized for supporting some autocratic Arab governments

Washington (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Arab leaders Tuesday to reform and meet the demands of their restive populations, warning the region "has a lot to lose if the vision vacuum is filled by extremists and rejectionists."

In comments to the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Washington, D.C., Clinton praised revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, but warned the revolutions could prove to be "just a mirage in the desert" if leaders failed to meet demands for reform.

"Changing leaders alone will not be enough," said Clinton, citing ongoing problems of deep unemployment, corruption and lack of opportunity for women, young people and minorities.

Clinton pointed to "troubling signs" in Tunisia and Egypt for the rights of women, whom she said have so far been left out of key decision-making.

"The United States will work with people and leaders across the region to create more open, dynamic and diverse economies," Clinton said, adding the Obama administration will provide both financial and technical assistance to help the region.

Clinton pointed to a fund that has already been created to help Mideast nations transition to democracy, with $150 million already set aside for Egypt. The U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corp. has also committed up to $2 billion to support private-sector investment in the region, she said.

Clinton's comments were the most expansive by the Obama administration since the political uprisings began spreading through the Middle East. They also underscored the administration's effort to strike a balance between supporting the democratic yearnings of the peoples of the region with U.S. national security interests.

Human right groups have called the Obama administration's approach to the so-called "Arab spring" inconsistent, chaging that U.S. policy toward some countries has a double standard.

While actively calling for the resignation of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Clinton stopped short of calling for the leaders of Syria, Yemen and Bahrain to step down. Instead she suggested those leaders could be part of their countries' futures if they embrace political and economic reforms.

Clinton said the Obama administration knows "a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't make sense in such a diverse region at such a fluid time."

"Going forward, the United States will be guided by careful consideration of all the circumstances on the ground and by our consistent values and interests," Clinton said.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has provided significant cooperation with U.S. counter-terrorism efforts against al-Qaeda, while Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet and has been a close ally in countering Iran's influence in the region.

"The United States has a decades-long friendship with Bahrain that we expect to continue long into the future," Clinton said. "We have made clear that security alone cannot resolve the challenges facing Bahrain."

In Syria, security forces have killed hundreds of activists protesting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The Obama administration has condemned the violence, however the White House has remained mum on al-Assad's future.

Syria is Iran's closest ally in the region and aids extremist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah with arms and money.

In her remarks Tuesday, Clinton said the Syrian government "must respect the universal rights of the Syrian people, who are rightly demanding the basic freedoms that they have been denied."

But she refrained from calling for al-Assad's ouster. Privately U.S. officials worry a Syria without al-Assad could descend into sectarian violence.

The United States also has hoped al-Assad could help forge a peace deal between Israel and the Arab states.

Clinton said the Obama administration was planning a new push to promote a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. That, she said, would be a major focus of an upcoming speech by President Obama, in which he is expected to lay out U.S. policy toward the Middle East and North Africa.

"The status quo between Palestinians and Israelis," Clinton said, "is no more sustainable than the political systems that have crumbled in recent months."