In the early days of the Egyptian revolution, before Hosni Mubarak stepped down, as the Obama administration was still trying to figure out a stance, the idea that the United States would not support their friend and loyal partner Mubarak prompted many conservative columnists to opine that Obama was going to go down in history as the President who lost the Middle East.
Obama’s standing in the Middle East has plummeted from the heights it held in the wake of his speech in Cairo in 2009. His administration’s policies and actions have reflected none of the pretty words he uttered and that has been noticed.
This dim view of Obama in the Arab world has not brought him approval in Israel, where he has been mistrusted from day one. His subsequent pursuit of a settlement freeze has deepened that mistrust. Few in Israel, much less the increasingly right-wing elements that are falsely labeled “pro-Israel” in the United States, either realize or are willing to acknowledge that Obama has done more to enhance Israel’s military capabilities than any other president.
Obama has tried to walk a very fine line between the Arab peoples and the Western concerns that are his primary constituency and it is heading toward a result that will be an utter disaster for the US.
The entire American approach to the Arab Spring has been a reflection of the schizophrenic dichotomy between the values most Americans (and everyone else) believe in and American foreign policy. This dichotomy has always existed, but it is most strongly reflected in the Middle East because of the absolute terror the idea of Arab democracy strikes in to the highest of Western elites, even while it is overwhelmingly supported by most Americans.
The fact is, the US has always been perfectly comfortable dealing with Arab dictators who were dependent on American support. That comfort is not merely cold-hearted; it is also the result of fear of the alternative.
The most obvious concern is oil and the extent to which the revenue that black gold brings benefits outside investors rather than the native populations. One reason the small Gulf states have not experienced the same kinds of revolutions other Arab states have is that the oil-rich kingdoms there have shared some of that wealth.
Another issue is the question of what freedom and democracy mean in different cultures. In the US, and to a great, if lesser, extent in Europe, these words have taken on an economic cast. The Cold War cemented the idea in the West that Capitalism and Democracy were inseparable.
I expressed concern over this when I tried to give some credit to Obama for his May 19th speech. In trying to say something positive about the economic relief programs Obama proposed for Egypt and Tunisia, I still expressed anxiety over the apparent neo-liberal tilt of it, policies which had proven in the past to be both unsound in the economic long term and incompatible with freedom and democracy.
I wrote: “Obama presented a distressingly familiar, neo-liberal plan for economic assistance for Egypt and Tunisia, complete with a request for an International Monetary Fund plan, which generally includes strict austerity measures, for strengthening the local economies. Debt forgiveness and loan guarantees for Egypt, totaling $2 billion, as well as private sector stimulation initiatives were promised, but it seems likely that the agenda here is to re-establish American influence through economic controls.”
The more I’ve considered that plan, the worse it seems. Adam Hanieh has a very good critique of it, which spares me the need to go deeply into it here. Hanieh is a bit more militant about it than I am and I think it’s not quite as bad as he makes out, but the specific critiques and objections he brings are spot-on.
I strongly recommend Hanieh’s piece, because it demonstrates the problem the US is facing: Egyptians and other Arabs are going to have their own ideas of what freedom and democracy entail, and they are likely to be considerably more indifferent to American and European needs on those scores.
That is, of course, as it should be. Every country should be primarily concerned with its own interests; that’s the basis of all international relations theory. But relatively small dictatorships dependent on powerful foreign patronage have a different set of self-interests.
Instead of supporting freedom in the Arab world, the United States has laid back, matching its words and policies only very slowly to the liberation movements and only after those movements had shown they were going to win.
The US is hoping to protect its waning influence in the region, but because it perceives Arab democracy as a threat to that influence, it is acting cautiously. It is also restrained in its choices by its own commitment to the repressive regime in Saudi Arabia and the Israeli occupation. This is a tension that can still be held for a while, but eventually, one side or the other will have to give.
In Egypt, the US initially backed its friend, Mubarak, with Vice President Joe Biden even going so far as to deny that Mubarak was a dictator. While Obama acted (whether one agrees with the actions or not) against regimes he did not like in Libya and Syria, it kept silent in Morocco and in Tunisia until the battle was won; continued to support Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh until it became clear he could not contain the protests; has uttered only a few meaningless peeps about restraint in Bahrain and has only intensified support of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its siege of the Gaza Strip.
The overriding fear is not that the Arab Spring would spread, as it has, to Israel; that was always inevitable and anyone with any familiarity with the region knew it. No, the fear is that it will spread to Saudi Arabia.
Within Saudi Arabia, there are very few stirrings. But the borders with Yemen and Bahrain are a concern, enough so that Saudi Arabia sent armed forces into Bahrain to help suppress that uprising. The authoritarian nature of both the Saudi regime, which pounces on dissent with breathtaking speed, and the Saudi culture, which effectively causes many Saudis to buy into the notion that the repression is natural and right, has prevented any sort of significant opposition from forming.
Still, there remain concerns that the impetus could be exported from outside the Saudi borders.
Obama has a harder time simply branding any friendly dictator as an ally in the “war on terror,” thereby making him kosher in American eyes as his predecessor did. But he has also refused to make any effort to try to change US policy in the region to even begin to bring American policy closer to the values most Americans hold.
In Lebanon, America’s insistence on pushing blindly forward with a UN tribunal on the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri led to the ouster of US-friendly Siniora government, replacing it with one where Hezbollah’s party and its allies are the dominant force.
In Egypt, Obama only backed the revolt when it was clear Mubarak was going to lose, has done nothing as the Egyptian military, which was always going to be the interim government, attempts to consolidate its position and now the US attempts to reassert its influence in the country through economic controls rather than military aid.
Turkey, whose population was always uncomfortable with their close association with Israel, was already shifting some of its positions, and Obama’s inability to mediate that reality has seriously cooled that relationship.
Put simply, the US has two key allies in the region: Saudi Arabia and Israel. The US response to the Arab Spring has been to put no pressure on either country to change their policies, while occasionally making some statement (like the nonsensical ’67 borders controversy) which is the same old policy wrapped in some new language.
That looks very bad in most Arab eyes, and it does not promise to lead to a stable relationship with the US in the future. And if it’s bad with Obama, what will the future hold?
Quite likely, it will hold a Middle East that is freer than it is today, more modern than it is today. And much less friendly to the US even than it is today.