Obama and the Arab Spring
The Arab Spring sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East is an opportunity for the United States to reassess its longstanding relationship with the region. While the speed and scale of the pro-democracy demonstrations initially caught the Obama administration off guard, the president and his foreign policy team quickly realized that the momentum was on the side of the protesters. Facing criticism that the U.S. had repeatedly been behind the curve in its response, the administration wanted the world to know that this time, it was on the “right side of history.”
The president’s speech before the State Department in May was a way for him to make clear that the U.S. was on the side of freedom and democracy. In his talk, Barack Obama laid out a vision for Washington’s response to the monumental changes taking place in the region and the realignment of U.S. policy. Pledging to shift away from decades of support for autocratic regimes by backing pro-democracy protesters, he placed Washington on the side of popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and, eventually, Syria.
In so doing, he hoped to address the voices of many who view the U.S. as disengaged and uninterested with the concerns of ordinary Arab citizens. His goal in the speech was to assure the Arab public that the U.S. was ready to reposition its relationship with the region by promising a “new chapter in American diplomacy.”
In addition, Obama attempted to match his lofty words with deeds by offering financial support to the newly established Arab governments in Egypt and Tunisia. This included canceling nearly $1 billion in debt owed by Egypt and guaranteeing $1 billion in borrowing through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. The U.S. will also launch new trade partnerships in the region and encourage the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to assist Egypt and Tunisia in securing loans. “We’ve (U.S.) asked the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to present a plan at (the) G-8 summit for what needs to be done to stabilize and modernize the economies of Tunisia and Egypt. Together we must help them recover from the disruptions of their democratic upheaval, and support the governments that will be elected later this year. And we are urging other countries to help Egypt and Tunisia meet its near-term financial needs,” the president said. Clearly, the billions of dollars in debt relief and loans for post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia will be a boost for their troubled economies; however, it will be more difficult to erase the effects of decades of U.S. support for their brutal and now deposed dictators, Hosni Mubarak and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, respectively.
On the contentious Arab-Israeli conflict, the president called for a renewed effort to negotiate and to lay out the framework of a possible Israeli-Palestinian peace deal based on the 1967 borders. In diplomatic terms, calling for such a negotiated settlement lays the groundwork for potential negotiations between both parties, with the U.S. inevitably acting as the go-between. Despite the fact that the president’s nearly hour-long speech was predominately aimed at addressing the Arab Spring, his comments on the stalled negotiations received the most attention. “The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state,” Obama said.
Although Obama’s words were largely unassailable, they failed to address some of the more difficult realities of foreign policy. A couple of days after making his reference to 1967, he was forced to backtrack as pressure mounted from pro-Israeli camps, including from members of his own party in Congress. Similarly, while Obama sought to align the U.S. with pro-democracy uprisings, most Arabs have yet to view Washington as an honest broker. Moreover, the U.S. has abstained from strongly condemning the abuses by its allies Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. “Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short-term interests don’t align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region. But we can, and we will, speak out for a set of core principles – principles that have guided our response to the events over the past six months,” President Obama said. The reality is, however, that whenever our ideals come into conflict with our longstanding foreign policy interests, the U.S. will continue to pursue its interests at the expense of those ideals.
One need only compare Syria and Libya to see the absurdity of our policy toward the Arab Spring. Even though the U.S. has taken a far more forceful stand with Libya by agreeing to participate in the Libyan no-fly zone, the administration has been relatively timid in considering similar action against the Assad regime in Syria. After months of declaring that Col. Muammar Qaddafi must go, the U.S. still has no cohesive exit strategy in Libya. Despite efforts to dislodge Qaddafi, he remains in power. In Syria, the administration is under pressure to rethink its approach, as Bashar al-Assad’s forces have killed more than 2,000 protesters and innocent civilians in one of the bloodiest confrontations since the regional uprising began. Despite these horrific deaths, the U.S. has been noticeably soft in its response to Syria, especially when compared with the harsh denunciations that greeted similar violence in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere in the region.
Obama’s immediate response to Assad’s crackdown was to condemn the killings. He was “appalled” by the “horrifying” reports out of the restive city of Hama, calling Assad “incapable” of addressing the people’s legitimate grievances and vowing to increase pressure. The president also reaffirmed U.S. support for “the courageous Syrian people, and their demands for universal rights and a democratic transition” and accused Assad of relying “on torture, corruption and terror.” In his homage to the “courageous” demonstrators, he alluded to the fact that they will bring change to Syria so “it can become a better place when the democratic transition has taken place.”
Yet the statement and subsequent embarrassingly soft U.N. declaration against Syria reflected the limits to U.S. power. While the U.N. Security Council eventually adopted a statement condemning Syria’s government for attacking civilian protesters and committing human rights violations, it lacked the weight or the impact of a full Security Council resolution. Unlike in Libya, where the U.S. and its allies were able to attack an isolated country with the blessing of other Arab nations, Syria is far more interconnected with the Middle East. In fact, an attack on Syria could upend the entire region.
The Arab Spring remains a historic opportunity for the U.S. to support Arab protesters clamoring for justice, freedom and dignity. As Obama himself pointed out in his speech, this is a moment for a “new chapter” because the “status quo (support for Arab autocrats and the continued Israeli-Palestinian impasse) is not sustainable.” He must voice his opposition to all governments that are violently cracking down on demonstrators and needs to back those words up with concrete policy changes. We need to send a strong message to the protesters in the streets – that the U.S. is a responsible global power, concerned about the ambitions of the region’s people, and willing to implement policies that support their struggle. This message will also assure a weary American public of the importance of U.S. engagement with the region as it struggles through this historic transition.
Farid Senzai is a fellow and the director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). He is also an assistant professor of political science at Santa Clara University.
ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.