US Bogged Down in Shifting Sands of Arab World
It was supposed to be a big event. United States President Barack Obama was supposed to be giving a monumental speech last week detailing how his administration would turn the page on US-Arab relations – in a way that took into account the big changes that the region has been going through for the past five months. For some in the US, Mr Obama’s speech seemed to do just that. He spoke about Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, the Palestinian- Israeli conflict, as well as Libya. For many in the US and Israel, the speech was predictably characterised as too pro-Palestine. Surely, it was thought, the Arab world would respond positively. Alas, that was not to be. Sitting in Cairo, where Mr Obama gave his often quoted speech a couple of years ago when he said he would “reset the relationship” between the United States and the Muslim world, I was also waiting to see if “Muslim world/Arab world speech 2.0” might be a real game changer. But reactions in the region showed disappointment – not optimism.
To be sure, most prefer Mr Obama’s Democratic administration to the alternative Republican one. The Obama administration carried the possibility of real change in US-Arab relations. But the delivery so far has fallen short of the promise. There is a feeling in Washington that
the Arab world should be grateful for the approach that the Obama administration has followed in the Arab world. After all, it was the Obama administration that called for former president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to step down, and intervened in Libya. But within the region, the perception is quite different. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to the region earlier this year, after the fall of Mr Mubarak, she was not greeted with applause, but with criticism. Egyptians wanted an apology for America’s support of Mr Mubarak for so long. They did not think the US deserved a thank you for finally cutting him loose after hundreds of Egyptians had died in protests. Arabs in general consider the autocratic regimes in the region as being supported, and even sustained, by American involvement.
In Libya, friendly feelers had been given towards Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, with many US businesses getting into the country over the last few years. Also, he had already been acting with impunity against his civilian population for a long time before American intervention came. So while the Arabs appear to be supportive of the intervention, many are asking: What took the US so long? They also ask: Why is the US so weak on Bahrain? Mr Obama was much more forthright on the issue than many expected, but this was against the backdrop of a huge American base in the country. Of Saudi Arabia, there was not a single mention, though the kingdom is being accused by many in the region of trying to stem the reform movement across the Arab world.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment for Arabs was on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This is the single most important foreign policy of the US as far as the Arab region is concerned. One has to keep in mind that as far as the Arab world is concerned, Israel is fundamentally on the wrong side of history for the occupation of Palestinian territories. Mr Obama’s speech, however, was perceived as reinforcing the historical empathy that the US had for Israel, and was perceived to level far more criticism against the Palestinians, particularly vis-a-vis Hamas. Many Arabs had reacted very positively to the news that the divisions between the Palestinian camps of Fatah and Hamas seemed to have ended. The US President’s criticism of Hamas was thus taken as pouring cold water on that news. And as expected, Mr Obama said little about Jerusalem or the Palestinian refugee problem, two key issues for the Arab world.
This is a key time for the US in the region. There is truly a monumental shift under way here – and history is being written in front of us. The Obama administration has a chance to really redraw the parameters of the Arab-American relationship. But in order to gain grassroots Arab trust, it will have to considerably shift how it relates to the region. At the moment, the Arabs perceive the US approach as “too little, too late”. The risk is that soon the Arabs at large will simply view the US as part of the problem in terms of fighting for reform, instead of viewing it as part of the solution. That certainly will not be to the benefit of the US.
H.A. Hellyer is a Fellow of the University of Warwick, director of the Visionary Consultants Group and the Europe Fellow of the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
This article was originally published by The Straits Times.