US on Wrong Side of History in Arab Spring

Although President Barack Obama's 2009 Cairo address to the Islamic world was designed to invigorate U.S.-Arab relations, America's capricious policies in the face of pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East have betrayed his words.

Obama heralded a new beginning based upon shared principles of truth, justice and progress. Yet, the U.S. reacted clumsily to the "people power" movements, persisting to support certain authoritarian regimes until the last minute while selectively taking stronger stances against others. Meanwhile, disillusioned Arabs from Tahrir Square to Damascus watched as the U.S. deviated from the tenets espoused in Obama's gospel.

U.S. propping tyrants and unpopular monarchs in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia fed an ever-burgeoning anti-Americanism that has manifested itself on the Arab streets. Most protesters view White House policy as hypocritical, evidenced by a recent Zogby poll that found Obama's favorability rating in the Arab world had sunk to 10 percent, which means he is now more unpopular in the region than even George W. Bush.

It's time for the U.S. to truly begin anew, as former Pakistani finance minister Shahid Javed Burki put it, " resetting the button, President Obama needs to move forward from rhetoric to real politics."

In Egypt, the U.S. stood by its tyrant, Hosni Mubarak, until it was politically unfeasible. U.S. officials are now even more unenthused about Egyptian democracy after the Muslim Brotherhood held a public internal election on Saturday for the first time in its history. Many experts see the Salafist movement as the favorite to win November's elections, a prospect leaving many politicians in the beltway tremulous with fear. American leaders miss Mubarak, given his proficiency at repressing Islamic factions, because the U.S. fears any type of Muslim regime, whether voted in democratically or otherwise.

In Libya, the U.S. has been an active participant in creating the wrong type of history. NATO-backed rebels are reportedly being led by al-Qaeda elements. From a humanitarian perspective, Western involvement has stalemated the struggle as Libya barrels down the path towards protracted civil war.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates it could take two to three years to dislodge Gaddafi. Some analysts have even suggested that an outright rebel victory could lead to a power vacuum, retributive attacks, catastrophic tribal bloodshed and the disintegration of the Libyan state.

U.S. advocating for regime change in Libya entirely contradicts its position in Syria where policy is driven, once again, by Realpolitik. The Western powers have been reluctant to ask Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down despite the fact he has committed atrocities on par with those inflicted by Gaddafi.

But the West sees Syria as a linchpin to Mideast stability, indispensable to maintaining the regional balance. An attitude well-encapsulated by Aaron David Miller in the Wilson Quarterly, who wrote: "Like a Wall Street heavyweight, Syria was too big and important to fail."

The U.S. finds itself on the sidelines, powerless, but has no other choice but to accept its limited influence. Miller recommends that, as it watches these events unfold, the U.S. should "be humble and respectful of history's power and uncertainty".

Miller also points out how America has found itself in terra incognita in a region vital to its national interests without a unified doctrine to guide it. But the U.S. should embrace democracy even if it can't configure the outcome, and accept the reality that the Mideast's emerging governments will unlikely be transfigured into Jeffersonian-style secular republics. The only guarantee that can be made is these nascent regimes will be far less amenable to American raison d'État than the Western-friendly dictatorships they're replacing.

Rami Khouri, editor of the Daily Star, says patience is the watchword as liberated Arab lands establish more democratic structures, each with its own unique tone and color:

Arab democracies will look very different from Western ones, and the world should have the patience and composure to let the people of this region find their own sustainable balances between religiosity and secularism, state-centered and pan-Arab nationalism, and traditional and modern forms of governance.

One can't expect overnight results considering these revolts have been a century in the making. After European colonial overlords retreated and the Ottoman Empire was swept aside by World War I, they left behind twenty-two nominally sovereign Arab states beset by corruption, income disparity, high unemployment, poor education, curbs on personal freedom and a record of sustained autocracy unmatched by any region the world over. Now Arab countries are being born of their own volition rather than through what Khouri calls "the false-birth handicraft of audacious European officials."

But Arab democratization will take time as they address critical issues such as security, economic stagnation and political legitimacy. Plus, mass discontent sparked by unfulfilled expectations is also a risk if these regimes revert back to authoritarian rule. Khouri estimates it will be at least a decade before we know if the change now underway is irreversible.

Suspicion of the U.S. will not dissipate easily, considering for decades Washington helped undermine the self-determination of the Arab world by supporting its oppressors. This sentiment has only been exacerbated by America's erratic behavior, as the U.S. finds itself in a dilemma succinctly captured by Global affairs columnist Frida Ghitis:

At a time when millions of Arabs will start voting, Washington's sluggishness to support pro-democracy demonstrations has eroded its claim to stand for freedom and democracy.

The common rallying cry of the demonstrators was a desire for constitutional changes that would protect individual liberties such as voting rights, freedom of expression and equality before the law. This was an opportunity for U.S. leaders to build a bridge to the Arab street based on similar American values. But if it continues to promote policies based solely on geopolitical calculus and fails to live up to its own principles, the U.S. could seal its fate as the biggest loser of the Arab Spring.


Michael Hughes writes similar articles as the Geopolitics Examiner.