DOHA, Qatar — The State Department's top Middle East official, Jeffrey Feltman, said Thursday that he was personally "inspired" by the youth-led revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and that the uprisings roiling the Arab world showed "there's a fundamental shift in the relationship of how people in the region view their rulers."
Feltman, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, was in Qatar on one of several stops in the Persian Gulf, where the United States is seeking to reassure nervous allies even as it urges them to embrace meaningful political reform. He was a speaking at a town-hall meeting hosted by Northwestern University in Qatar and billed as a forum on media and Internet freedom in the Arab world.
His remarks in Doha come at a time of great upheaval in the Middle East, and most dramatically now in Libya, where anti-government protesters have seized huge swaths of the country and are vowing to march on the capital Tripoli to finish the job.
As Muammar al-Qaddafi again took to the airwaves to accuse the protesters of taking drugs and carrying out al Qaeda's agenda -- while forces loyal to the embattled Libyan leader reportedly continued their campaign of terror in and around Tripoli -- Feltman said it was "not clear that Qaddafi is listening to anybody."
"It's appalling what's happening now in Libya. It's really, really appalling," Feltman said with obvious emotion. But, he noted, echoing remarks made by President Barack Obama on Wednesday evening, that the United States had "a responsibility to our own citizens" in Libya that took immediate precedence over "a general obligation to protect Libyan citizens."
Asked whether the United States could do more in Libya to prevent civilian deaths, he said, "I don't have any answers for you right now, what the right approach is."
The turmoil sweeping the region is not about America, Feltman stressed. "The United States isn't going to be the one that makes or breaks the changes in the region today," he said. "To the extent that our advice, our help is welcome, we will be there … but we don't want to make this story about us."
Asked if he saw more cause for hope or alarm amid the current unrest, he replied, "I think that the opportunities are greater on the moving toward a better future side … but the chaos path is open, too."
"I think the opportunity is real for fundamental and lasting change," he continued. "But I don't think it's going to be linear."
Whatever comes out of the political process in Egypt and Tunisia, he said, is "going to be a messy system" where "in some cases people are making it up as they go." But he expressed confidence that newly elected governments in both countries will be "a heck of a lot more representative of the popular will" than the previous regimes.
But Feltman was not quite ready to declare that U.S. foreign policy has fundamentally shifted in the region. "U.S. foreign policy is a multiheaded beast," he said, with "a number of goals that we pursue at any given time and are constantly balancing."
"Frankly," he said, "you seize opportunities" in making foreign policy, and "right now the conditions are ripe for really trying to achieve some of the reform, democracy, human rights goals" the United States had promoted for years, with little success.
"It's not because our goals are changed," he explained, but rather that "we don't want to miss the opportunity to accomplish some of the goals."
Weighing his words carefully, Feltman also both praised and criticized Al Jazeera, the Doha-based Arabic satellite network that has played an integral role in inspiring and intensively covering protest movements that have spread in recent weeks to Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen.
"The United States recognizes the phenomenon of Al Jazeera," he said. "We've had an often difficult relationship" with the satellite channel, which is funded by the Qatari government but maintains that its coverage is completely independent.
"I think it's a very, very important media tool, and we would be stupid to ignore it," he emphasized.
"That said," he continued, "we had a lot of questions about the Palestine Papers" -- the extensive notes of Palestinian negotiators that were released with great fanfare in late January by Al Jazeera -- the coverage of which he said blurred the line between "what is investigative journalism and what becomes character assassination."
"There was a sensationalist aspect" to the reporting that "didn't seem to meet the professional standard that Al Jazeera sets for itself," Feltman said. Saeb Erekat, the top Palestinian negotiator, resigned in the wake of the uproar over the documents' publication; the support unit that he headed was abolished.
Feltman is on a nine-day tour of Persian Gulf monarchies -- with stops in Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates -- where his mission is to "reaffirm the United States' commitment to our longstanding partnerships in the region as well as universal human rights, freedom of expression, and the promotion of democratic principles," according to a State Department press release.
According to an embassy spokesperson, Feltman met on Thursday with Qatari Minister of State for International Cooperation Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah, as well as Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim and Ahmed bin Abdullah al-Mahmoud, the minister of state for foreign affairs.