Why wouldn’t we be on their side? Aren’t we in favor of getting rid of corrupt autocrats? Aren’t we in favor of democracy? ~Claire Berlinski

Berlinski asks this in response to the non-commital statement by Secretary Clinton that the U.S. is not “taking sides” over the unemployment riots in Tunisia. Clinton also criticized the Tunisian government for its use of force against the protesters, and she deplored the violence that has thus far claimed several dozen lives. It isn’t clear to me what more the administration could do in public that would be constructive.

Declaring U.S. government support for protesting opponents of Ben Ali isn’t likely to lead to a peaceful resolution, but probably would lead to escalating tensions and more riots. Making Ben Ali’s removal from power the goal of U.S. policy (!) wouldn’t hasten internal reform, but would put the regime into an even greater panic and inspire an even harsher crackdown. It would also wreck a reasonably solid relationship with Tunisia for no discernible reason except that “we are in favor of democracy.” This would be dangerous enough if Washington actually intended to lend support to the protesters, but it would be even worse if the administration claimed that it was on the “side” of the protesters only to demonstrate that it could do nothing for them. Even if we all agree that Ben Ali’s regime is very repressive (it is) and ought to undergo major reform (it should), public denunciation by American officials isn’t going to lead to that outcome.

Suppose instead that the administration might be able to work privately for an easing of the crackdown and addressing some of the protesters’ grievances, but that it could only do this by publicly appearing not to take sides. Would that make the administration’s public neutrality more acceptable? Is publicly taking sides intended to help the protesters, or mainly to take a self-satisfying, ineffective stand?

Update: Blake Hounshell has an article on the Tunisian unrest that includes this important point:

But U.S. officials admit privately they have few interests in Tunisia and little leverage. “The U.S. is not the most important external player,” said a State Department official, asked what more the United States can do to promote democratic change. “How effectively can you ‘push a country to the wall’ without other actors coming along?”

As Hounshell explains, France has far more influence as one would expect, and seems uninterested in using it to pressure Ben Ali. As this Time article relates, the French government is very free with its criticism when its interests are not directly at stake (which makes their government like most governments in the world):

The French rarely hesitate to loudly lament the smothering of opposition in Iran, Burma, and North Korea, for example, and continue to push Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo to step aside after losing an election he contests. But when it comes to staunch allies like Ben Ali getting rough with their people, Paris tends to get tight-lipped and look for excuses.