It’s hard to think of a type of crisis the Obama administration has not faced during the past two years.
President Barack Obama inherited a pair of difficult wars and a financial meltdown from the Bush administration. Toss in a major environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and you get a sense of the kind of chaos a young, relatively inexperienced president has had to cope with in the first half of his term. However, Obama has been successful in drawing down the Iraq war and redefining the strategy in Afghanistan, and the American economy appears to be slowly clawing itself away from the abyss.
But now, with the entire Arab world aflame, Obama has just been handed the most far-reaching foreign policy challenge – and opportunity – the United States has faced since the end of the Cold War. Anti-government protests are underway in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, Mauritania, Djibouti and Morocco. There are rumblings in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf. And things are starting to heat up again in Egypt and Tunisia, where it all began.
For decades the US has based its foreign policy in the Middle East on maintaining stability, above all, and preserving the status quo. Washington has been guided by perceived core interests: ensuring that the US remains the sole regional superpower, securing the flow and pricing of energy resources, and a commitment to Israel’s security. The George W. Bush administration toyed with the idea of introducing a “freedom agenda” into US policy toward the Arab world, even releasing a “Greater Middle East Initiative” document outlining this.
But the Bush administration’s approach was badly flawed. The Greater Middle East Initiative was drafted without Arab input, and was slated to be unveiled at a multilateral meeting at which no Arab state would have been present. Even Arab reformers for the most part viewed the document with deep suspicion. It smacked too much of a neocolonial dictate, was premised on an unrealistic one-size-fits-all model, and ignored the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. This occupation has created as undemocratic an order as can be imagined – involving the rule of millions of noncitizens by a foreign army. As long as it persists, the US will be unable to lecture Arabs credibly on democracy.
The Greater Middle East Initiative was more than anything else a product of the intoxication of the short “mission accomplished” period before the Iraqi insurgency began in earnest. The chaos that ensued in Iraq ended any possibility that policies would be based on the freedom agenda or the stillborn initiative. Even under the Bush administration, tension between the short-term interests of the US in energy, stability and Israeli security; and long-term interests through the promotion of democracy, human rights and better relations with Arab populations rather than regimes, was, as always, decided in favor of the former.
Now the Obama administration – which has placed enormous emphasis on repairing relations with governments, promoting stability and seeking regional agreements – is confronted with a sudden, unexpected and uncontrolled outpouring of popular Arab anger and rejection of the status quo, both domestically and regionally. The problem is that American interests haven’t changed, but American calculations have to, and quickly. The US will have to deal with the outcome of a wave of popularly-driven demands for change that could be threatening to its short-term interests, but should very well serve the long-term interests.
The challenge for the US is to be seen as unequivocally taking the side of the Arab peoples even when it comes to pressuring long-standing allies. Otherwise, there is every danger that change will be both out of American control and hostile to American interests.
In truth, the US has a limited ability to influence what happens in most Arab states. However, the wisest course for Washington is to issue bold statements and use whatever leverage it has, even when this is more symbolic than practical, to demonstrate a real commitment to Arab democracy and reform in spite of potential risks to short-term American interests. This is happening, whether the US or the West likes it or not. It is futile to try holding back the waves like an impotent King Canute, or stand on the sidelines issuing vague statements to the effect of, “We may or may not be trying to have it both ways.”
Obviously, American interests haven’t changed, and they still center on energy, stability, American power and influence, and Israeli security. But the best way to secure these interests is to do everything possible to avoid being seen as the guarantor of domestic and regional orders that are plainly anathema to the Arab peoples in general.
American influence can no longer be secured through military might alone, and the US is hardly in a position to start writing checks either. The best approach for the US to secure its interests in the long-term and ensure that the new Arab order is as friendly as possible to American concerns is to embrace Arab change. Washington must place itself squarely on the side of the Arab peoples’ demands for democracy, inclusivity, good governance and accountability.