Today, President Obama will meet with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi at the White House. The meeting comes precisely a week after Obama met with leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states at Camp David.
Since the Arab Spring protests of 2011, Tunisia and the GCC states have taken diametrically opposite paths. Tunisia is the only country that has been able to move from the removal of its long-time dictator to the adoption of a democratic constitution. Tunisia's often fragile transition process has set an example for compromise and inclusive governance, notably absent from most of its neighbors.
The GCC states have taken a different path. Their response to popular demands for more representative and inclusive governance has been to work for the restoration of the authoritarian old order. They fuel sectarian conflict in order to justify their massive expansion in national security forces and the adoption of sweeping counterterrorism laws often used to restrict peaceful dissent in the name of upholding security.
The United States and the GCC states are mutually dependent, making any sudden rupture in relations unlikely and probably even unthinkable. However, even though the United States is stuck with allies that stand for virtually everything it claims to be against, the U.S. government should not downplay or omit key foreign policy priorities that are matters of vital national interest. The joint statement issued by the United States and the GCC states after the Summit, for example, noted the importance of "respect for, and protection of, minorities and human rights"... in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, but not in the GCC states themselves.
Matters such as expanding opportunities for women, ensuring that independent civil society organizations can operate freely, free speech and religious freedom are either vital American interests, or they are not. When these issues are not raised or are dismissed by U.S. government officials in high-level meetings with key allies with poor human rights records, U.S. global leadership on human rights is undermined. The president can't have it both ways and expect results.
President Obama's rhetoric on the worsening security situation in the Middle East suggests that he fully understands the limitations of a narrow security centric approach to establishing the peaceful, orderly region, which he has described as the "core interests" of U.S. policy. He said in February at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, "...we must recognize that lasting stability and real security require democracy." He went on to list the characteristics of democratic governance all of which of are absent from the absolute monarchies of the GCC: free elections, free speech, freedom for civil society groups and freedom of religion.
It is a welcome gesture for President Obama to receive Tunisia's first freely elected president at the White House. Nonetheless, the Obama Administration continues to invest a lot of time, effort and political capital in its relations with states that actively undermine U.S policy objectives in the region, while U.S. support for the Arab world's new democracy remains muted and underwhelming.
The outcomes of the Camp David Summit were predictably scant. The president reiterated the U.S. commitment to strong security cooperation, without the enhancement of the security relationship to the status of a written treaty that the GCC states were looking for. The GCC states demanded an extravagant gesture of obeisance from the United States to placate their concerns over the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear capacity. The United States granted their wish, but it was an empty gesture.
There are of course some hard realities that explain the different treatment that the GCC states and Tunisia receive from America's leaders. Saudi Arabia is one of the wealthiest countries on the planet; together with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, it has about a third of the world's proven oil reserves and has been willing to use these resources to serve U.S. strategic goals. The GCC states are important trading partners for the United States and major customers of American products, including aircraft and weapons systems.
Through its relationship with Tunisia, the United States has an opportunity to demonstrate that, despite the legacy of its past entanglements with authoritarian governments in the region, it is seriously committed to ensuring the success of Tunisia's democratic transition. In so doing, President Obama can begin to shift the emphasis of its engagement with the region away from the failed authoritarian patterns of the past and towards a future grounded in respect for human rights and the rule of law; a future that is desperately needed to bring peace and stability to the region.