On Thursday US President Barack Obama will give what will probably be the most difficult foreign policy speech of his presidency thus far. Obama will seek to define an overall US approach to the Arab Spring. However, given the extreme complications facing US policy, it will be extremely difficult for him to articulate clear principles that can be consistently implemented.
Obama is likely to begin by focusing on the welcome death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. In spite of the undoubted importance of this achievement and the ongoing threat posed by his small but deadly group of followers, Al Qaeda is playing almost no role in the emergence of the new Middle East.
Instead, the regional order and the Arab state system are being challenged by pro-democracy protests that threaten American friends and foes alike. In his well-calibrated speech on the Libyan intervention, Obama focused on what he identified as a convergence between “values” and “interests.”
In other instances, these imperatives are at odds, creating what are likely to be ongoing policy conundrums into the foreseeable future. The most obvious example is Bahrain, where the United States disapproved of the government crackdown and Gulf Cooperation Council intervention, but has been ignored. Because it is the home of the US Fifth Fleet, and concerns about Iranian designs on the island, the United States cannot walk away from Bahrain and is left with few options other than muted protests.
The administration quickly came to the correct approach in Egypt, urging the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and a managed transition toward greater democracy. But this exacerbated situations in which American allies elsewhere staunchly refused to consider reform and began to look upon Washington as unreliable, thereby placing values and interests in a tension that was difficult to reconcile.
The perception that the Americans abandoned a loyal ally in Mubarak has deeply shaken some long-standing US partners, especially Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have reacted in part by moving to expand the GCC to include Jordan and Morocco, potentially creating a broader status quo-oriented alliance of Sunni monarchies. A striking commentary by Nawaf Obaid in The Washington Post suggests the development of a much more independent Saudi foreign policy that finds itself increasingly at odds with American perceptions.
An opposite but related conundrum has emerged in Syria, where the United States has been deeply reluctant to clearly call for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, a long-time foe. Concerns about chaos and civil war, the anxieties of US allies – particularly Israel – and strong suspicions that the Syrian regime will survive the uprising have prompted a noticeably muted American response.
The United States is a status quo power in a Middle East wracked by the forces of change, but whose regional influence and power is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be waning. No doubt the Americans would prefer orderly transitions to greater democracy without upsetting the regional system, but few, if any, Arab governments, pro- or anti-American, are willing to engage in serious reform. This makes a clear American statement that it will unequivocally support pro-democracy demands by Arab citizens difficult to fulfill, and highlights the extent to which US values and interests will frequently be difficult to reconcile in the coming months.
Obama will also have to deal with the Palestinian issue under conditions of extreme uncertainty. The all-important details of the Hamas-Fatah agreement remain entirely unclear, as does the Israeli vision for the future. The resignation of the American special envoy, George Mitchell, indicates the extent to which negotiations are on hold for the foreseeable future. Moreover, last weekend’s violent suppression of protesters in numerous border areas by Israel, in which at least a dozen unarmed Palestinians were killed, reinforces the issue’s volatility and regional significance.
Obama is likely to reaffirm the US commitment to a two-state solution, but more detailed comments are unlikely. It would appear a stronger intervention is being tabled until at least the summer and that another major diplomatic initiative will probably not emerge until after the next American election.
This decoupling may be forced, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. There can be no questioning the importance of the Palestinian issue to the Arab uprisings, but there is also a clear logic to treating the two as parallel but distinct tracks. There are at least as many risks in lumping them together as dealing with them separately.
For Obama to resolve the clear tension between American interests and values regarding demands for radical change in Washington’s relations with allied Arab states is an extraordinary challenge. Coming up with an actionable formula that can place the US on the side of the aspirations of the Arab people, which is essential, without further antagonizing and alarming its already skittish – and, in some important cases, alienated – allies will be the greatest foreign policy challenge this young president has yet faced.