Anyone who thought the Arab Spring would bring peace, tranquility and pluralist democracy to the Arab world was, at best, misinformed. For decades, many Arab states had been ruled by autocratic if not dictatorial regimes whose origins can be traced to an earlier period dominated by ideologies of nationalism, Communism, and secularism. Domestic opposition to these regimes had coalesced around Islamic organizations and Islamists had long been targeted for repression. Even in autocratic regimes built upon tribal, dynastic and Islamic principles such as Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, opposition increasingly tended to be led by Islamic movements. While secularists devoted to liberal democratic principles also often found themselves in opposition and subject to repression in Arab autocracies, they tended not to be the strongest opposition.
Hence, the Arab Spring has unleashed an Islamic reawakening in the Arab world. Despite a misplaced belief by some that “free” elections in Arab states would result in the triumph of secularists devoted to liberal or pluralist democracy, electoral victories have gone to Islamist parties. This has been most visible in the two countries that led the uprisings, Tunisia and Egypt. In Tunisia, the Nahda party is in control of the government. It is a moderate Islamist party, at least when compared to the more extreme Salafists. In Egypt, the Moslem Brotherhood triumphed at the polls. The Moslem Brotherhood has a long history as an extreme fundamentalist Islamic organization strongly opposed to the dissemination of Western values, secular regimes, and Israel. Time will tell whether its political leadership, reflected in Egypt’s President Morsi, will adopt more pragmatic moderation now that it is actually in power. In any case, these new regimes reflect the re-emergence of Islam as the dominant political ideology, and not merely religion, in the Arab world after decades of secularist rule in much of the region.
The United States has sought to move with caution during the Arab Spring. While American policy has long advocated democracy, it has also not surprisingly favored support for pro-Western regimes regardless of their political stripe. Hence, the United States long supported Egypt’s Mubarak, a secular military dictator who repressed Islamic fundamentalists and others but maintained peace with Israel. The United States has also long supported the traditional regimes in Saudi Arabia and the Arab emirates despite their autocratic structures given their pro-Western foreign policies.
The United States did not foment the Arab Spring. With its eruption, in Tunisia, then Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and now Syria, the United States has sought to find a balance between, on the one hand, supporting Arab efforts to cast aside dictatorial regimes in favor of open elections and political movements with considerable popular support, and, on the other hand, maintaining friendly relations with autocratic Arab regimes that remain pro-Western. Where the more traditional Arab regimes have succeeded in maintaining stability and not succumbing to the Arab Spring, the United States has moved carefully in continuing to lend its support while gently nudging their autocratic leaders to make concessions toward opposition groups in order to avoid instability. These include Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Jordan. But where autocrats have been successfully challenged in the streets, such as in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the United States has sought to develop friendly relations with the newly emergent Islamist forces.
It is easy to criticize the Obama Administration for purportedly not showing stronger leadership during this incredible period of flux in the Arab world but such criticism is misplaced. Some American political leaders were highly critical of Obama for not standing behind Mubarak, clearly a pro-American dictator, as his regime began to crumble. But even his own military comrades saw the writing on the wall as popular opposition grew and grew and ultimately the military moved against him if only to preserve its position of power. Surely had Obama remained steadfast in support of Mubarak and against the popular revolution, America would not have succeeded in “saving” Mubarak and it would have found itself in an untenable position vis-à-vis Egypt. In Tunisia, the first country to overthrow its dictator, there was little support for the crumbling regime. The United States wisely showed support for the overthrow of the dictator. In Yemen, the United States appears to have sought to provide its good offices to assist the long serving leader in stepping down, in hopes that the succeeding regime would remain pro-American.
If some have been critical of Obama for not standing behind America’s Arab allies, others have been critical of him for not moving faster to support forces aligned against the old regimes. This was most evident with respect to Libya, during the battle against Gaddafi, but is also evident more recently with respect to the civil war in Syria. John McCain, the Republican candidate for President in 2008, was sharply critical of Obama for not leading the fight against Libya’s Gaddafi. Obama wisely chose not to take the lead but, rather, provide important support in a more subdued way, looking toward American European allies to step forward. As a result, Gaddafi was defeated and American influence with the Libyan government appears strong. McCain has also criticized Obama for not getting involved in the Syrian civil war against Assad. Obama has wisely not bowed to these criticisms. He has moved cautiously vis-à-vis Syria, seeking to build a coalition to pressure the Assad regime and quietly provide arms to the opposition.
It is clear that a cautious, measured, balanced policy of the kind Obama is pursuing is required to cope with the Arab Spring and spinoff events. It reflects wise public policy as well as the sentiments of most Americans.
The American electorate does not want further significant American military involvement in the Middle East or elsewhere. Americans came to see the Iraq War as a huge mistake. The United States was misled by its President into believing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and became immersed in a civil war pitting Sunnis against Shia with Kurds as still another party. While supporters of the Iraq War claim that it resulted in a democratic state, that remains unclear. The sectarian groups are still fighting fiercely amongst themselves both in political and military terms. The emergence of a democratic regime, even a functioning pluralist political system, remains questionable. Furthermore, as a result of the Iraq War, the current Shia dominated Baghdad regime is far friendlier to neighboring Shia Iran than suits American interests. The continuing war in Afghanistan is trying the patience of most Americans. While that war had widespread American support at the outset, it has become the longest war in American history, the Afghanistan regime seems incapable of assuming effective military control over the country (much as the South Vietnamese regime could not do during the Vietnam War) and most Americans are now eagerly awaiting America’s exit in 2014. Polls suggest that Americans do not want to become militarily involved in Syria’s civil war.
As shown by the early results of the Arab uprisings, the regimes that have come to power may turn out to be far less friendly toward the United States and its allies than the regimes that were overthrown. Hence, while continuing American support for the dictators would have been a mistake given their tenuous holds on power, unabashed support for the popular uprisings and the Islamist leaders and parties who have come to power might have been and may be a mistake as well. The new Egyptian regime is dominated by the Moslem Brotherhood, which, as noted, has historically been a very anti-Western organization that has denounced Egypt’s treaty with Israel as well as the dissemination of Western values in the Islamic world. The opposition to Syria’s Assad family is led by the majority Sunnis. Their political orientation remains unclear as a unified opposition has yet to emerge. While the United States should not keep its distance from this Sunni opposition, as America wants to exercise influence over the probable victors in the civil war, it needs to proceed with caution. It is far too early to know where a new regime in Damascus will stand vis-à-vis the West, Russia, China, Israel and its neighbors. Furthermore, American support for a particular group or organization in the Arab world often backfires as others paint those groups as too pro-Western or weak on fighting for the Palestinians. Effective diplomacy requires subtlety, something many Republican politicians seem not to understand. The Obama Administration has seemingly been successful thus far in cultivating good relations with the new regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Yemen despite the latest terrorist attack in Libya and mass demonstrations elsewhere.
Critics of Obama have also focused on his treatment of Israel and its current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Republicans have long claimed that Obama has been an apologist toward the Arab world and Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president in 2012, has irresponsibly charged that Obama has thrown Israel under the bus. Netanyahu, seemingly trying to take advantage of the American presidential elections to put pressure on Obama, recently claimed that Obama’s refusal to draw a bright red line in the sand beyond which Iran may not move without suffering military retaliation deprives the United States of any moral authority to restrain Israel in its actions toward Iran.
These charges are simply untrue. President Obama must walk a careful line in furthering American interests in the Middle East. He has repeatedly pledged America’s steadfast support toward Israel. At the same time, America has always had interests in the Arab world, both in the oil-rich kingdoms surrounding the Persian Gulf, and amongst the Arabs from the Fertile Crescent to North Africa, including Egypt. Obama has sought to proceed in a cautious way to maintain support for Israel, nudge both the Palestinians and Israelis toward a resumption of peace negotiations, remain supportive of Arab regimes that, while not democratic, are pro-Western, and develop links with the new Arab regimes that have emerged from elections as a result of the Arab Spring. This has been a juggling act of sorts and is quite a challenge. It is easy for Obama’s critics to accuse him of not acting firmly enough in one or more of these areas but an effective foreign policy requires that America pursue its interests in all of these areas simultaneously. Obama is doing so despite incredible obstacles.
The most recent crisis has involved demonstrations against American embassies and consulates in the Arab world following the airing of an inflammatory video on YouTube mocking Prophet Muhammad and a terrorist attack and killing of America’s ambassador to Libya on 9/11. Instead of supporting President Obama in a bipartisan manner during this period of unrest, Mitt Romney engaged in partisan politics, condemning a press release issued by the American Embassy in Egypt before any violence or breach of the Embassy’s wall had occurred that was intended to discourage violence by condemning the hate-filled YouTube video as an assault against religious tolerance. Romney was heavily criticized even by many of his own party leaders for his misguided behavior.
Surely, America needs to proceed with strength but caution in response to the current unrest over the incendiary video and the terrorist attack in Libya. Working with a friendly Libyan government, the United States must aggressively hunt down the terrorists who killed our Ambassador in Libya. But as for the street demonstrations now occurring throughout many Arab and Moslem countries against the hateful video, the United States must proceed prudently.
The Arab world is in turmoil and the United States will be making an enormous mistake to believe that it can control events just because it is the United States of America, the world’s predominant if only “super power.” It does not further American interests to alienate the emerging Islamist governments in the Arab world who may be less friendly to us than their predecessor autocratic rulers. We must seek to develop positive relations with them but this will not be an easy task. Egypt is a particular challenge given the profound change from military dictatorship led by a secular, pro-Western leader, to an Islamist regime led by a prominent member of the Moslem Brotherhood. But the United States needs to proceed with caution, using its influence as best it can and only using threats to withhold financial and military aid, let alone the actual deployment of American military force, sparingly. These threats have some effectiveness but likely not as much as most Americans think they do.
At the same time, the United States must make clear its expectations and act appropriately if foreign leaders fail to meet them. Recently President Obama was asked whether Egypt was still an American ally in light of President Morsi’s tepid response to the breach of the American Embassy by Egyptian demonstrators. Obama responded that he didn’t think Egypt was an ally although it was not an enemy. While the United States drew back slightly from that pronouncement the next day in that Egypt is legally designated a major non-NATO ally, Obama’s message to Morsi was clear: that America will seek to accommodate these new Islamist regimes that have emerged at the ballot box but it will not forego America’s own interests or sit idly by while America’s interests, including the safety of its citizens, are undermined.
The ramifications of the Arab Spring are still unfolding. Those who thought the popular uprisings would result in Western-style liberal or pluralist democracy were mistaken. It has unleashed pent up popular sentiments deeply affected by and infused with Islam. These sentiments reflect fundamentalist religious beliefs, historical sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia and among diverse ethnic communities, frustration over widespread poverty and unemployment, deep animosity toward Israel, and distrust of the West. There is no deeply embedded pluralist democratic ethos in the Arab world so the development of democratic institutions will take some time. The rise of new autocratic regimes before democracy takes root is certainly quite possible.
But the United States has weathered previous storms in the Arab world and the greater Middle East. Egypt under Nasser was not an American ally. Non-Arab Iran under the Shah was an American ally. America tilted toward Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. The biggest threat decades ago to Western interests came not from Islamists but from radical secular Arab movements, sometimes allied with the Soviet Union. Alliances come and go. It often appears that “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” but not quite.
The United States must remain strong and resolute yet flexible and prudent. In my judgment, that has been Obama’s approach. Accommodations made by the United States to dynamic situations should not be seen as signs of weakness. Rather, inflexibility and a belief that America can and will prevail in every situation through its exercise of military and/or economic might are doomed to failure.
These are uncertain times and often the most effective path forward is far from clear at the time decisions must be made. President Obama has made mistakes. But, overall, his policies toward the Arab Spring, Israel, the Middle East, and Iran, have been smart, wise, prudent, and in furtherance of America’s interests.