Position papers

Assessing the Obama Administration's Response to the Events of the Arab spring

25 December 2020 876 Views

Barack Obama administration’s response to the Arab Spring has been deemed as inconsistent due the conflict between the US commitment -to values—freedom, democracy promotion, etc—and its national interests. Such lack of clarity of vision has been reinforced by the administration’s deep divisions on Libya and Syria as well as on the viability of interventionism. Inconsistency has also to do with the failure to support the Bahraini uprising and to condemn the military coup in Egypt. Such an inconsistent approach has produced a foreign policy of hesitation and caution rather than engagement and leadership.
The essay will critically examine four main issues. The first is the belated US response to the Arab Revolutions—Tunisia and Egypt in particular—and whether such response had to do with a specific agenda to favour stability over reform. The second explores the administration's attempt to reconcile American national interests and the values of freedom and democracy sought by the Arab spring countries. ln addressing this second issue, focus will be particularly put on two main questions: consideration of Israel's security and the division of the administration between pro-Obama Liberal Internationalists and Realist skeptics . The third issue concerns one of the most problematic dilemmas of the administration, basically its passive response to the Bahraini revolt and the double standards in dealing with the oil-rich Gulf. Fourth of all, the essay examines whether Obama's Arab spring foreign policy approach has caused a crisis in American leadership and supremacy.

I-Belated Response and Future Prospects
Like many Western countries, the US was taken by surprise when the people of Tunisia and, later, Egypt, took to the streets and finally deposed long-ruling dictators. One of the most crucial questions in evaluating the US response to the so-called Arab Spring is Why the Obama administration reacted belatedly and reluctantly to the uprisings and whether such belated response reflects a deeper problem at the core of Obama's foreign policy approach. America's leadership predicament was caused by dilemma choose between 'reform' or 'stability’  (Kitchen 2012). Such a dilemma is confirmed by Obama's wait-and-see policy in reaction to Tunisia and Egypt.
Despite its inconsistency and caution, Obama's foreign policy in particular was highly unlikely to be impacted by dictatorial regimes zeal for power in the Middle East or North Africa. While Obama has had a clear agenda for protecting US interests, his responses to the Arab Spring revolts do not  reveal that he has been reluctant to balance America's national interests with freedom and democracy promotion. He also sought to distance his foreign policy approach from the Bush Doctrine. On the other hand, it seems, that the US response to the so-called Arab Revolutions was not more timid or less assertive than that of the European partners[1].
When Tunisian protestors took to the streets, William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary (The Telegraph 2011) and Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor impassionately called for a return to a "peaceful situation" (BBC 2011). The French President Nicolas Sarkozy, holder of an "honorary citizenship" from President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2008 (The Guardian 201 1), was the least enthusiastic about the Tunisian revolution. "Only dialogue", he affirmed, "can bring a democratic and lasting solution to the current crisis" (Reuters 2011). The French Foreign Minister Michéle Alliot-Marie was even more supportive of the Ben Ali regime. She asked her government to offer military and logistic assistance to the Tunisian government to crush the protests (the Guardian 2011).
Therefore, the US was not alone in responding coldly to the unexpected revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. The only instance of full support for one Arab Spring country - by both the US and Europeans-  was that in response to -the insurgency against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi; the clear agenda of most Western countries, as widely believed, was Libya's oil reserves. As for the Libyan insurgency, Obama, prompted by newly recruited liberal hawks, fully supported regime change by force. Action was assigned to NATO force led mainly by Britain and France, whereas the US -chose to 'lead from behind' and favoured indirect intervention.

II. National interests, interventionism and democracy promotion
Obama's belated response reflected other problems in his foreign policy approach. The argument here is that in considering the prospects of the Arab Spring the Obama administration got gripped by three major problems: (1) how to safeguard one's national interests, including Israel's security, without affecting democracy promotion, (2) how to guarantee an Arab-Muslim democracy that does not fall prey to political Islam; and (3) how to forge a foreign policy approach that relies no longer on crude interventionism and regime change by force.
On January 25, 2011 Hilary Clinton declared that "the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people" (Clinton, 2011). The message behind such statement is that the Obama administration was acting cautiously in the interest of the Egyptian people and would not risk their stability by pronouncing irresponsible declarations. Few days earlier, the administration had been put in the uneasy situation of having to reconcile the aspirations of the Tunisian people with the country's political stability. It was only when Ben Ali had fled to Saudi Arabia that a supportive declaration was pronounced.

"The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia", President Obama asserted, "and supports the democratic aspirations of all people".

(Obama, 2011)

The Egyptian revolution posed yet a more challenging situation for the US, given the historical and geo-political importance of Egypt and its proximity to Israel. The Mubarak regime had long served Israeli interests in the region and helped alleviate the tension between Israel and the Palestinians. Immediate response to Mubarak's resignation came from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who hoped that the revolution would not bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power. He also warned against "an Islamist wave [that was] sweeping the Arab world and beyond" (Egypt Independent 2012). Former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt, Zvi Mazel, declared right after Mubarak's fall that the Israeli should "forget about the former Egypt. Now it's a completely new reality, and it won't be easy" (HAARETZ, 2011). The Israeli government has also recently blamed the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt on Obama's "naivety" (Israel Today 2013).
Obama's impassioned for the Egyptian revolution so to speak, derived in great part from the concern with Israel's security. This can be explained by his response to the military coup ousted President Morsi. The US should seriously consider its "national interests in this longstanding relationship", Obama asserted (Cited in Howard La Franchi 2013). H. L Franchi has written that the "national interests" mentioned by Obama are definitely dictated by "the terms of the US-brokered Egypt' Peace Treaty— an agreement that has provided the bedrock of regional stability for nearly four decades" (Howard La Franchi 2013). American concerns about Israel Security was part of the Administration's prudence not to rush congratulating the revolution in 2011. It is true that for the US, deposing Mubarak would constitute a step forward in the direction of democracy in the Arab world, but the democratic push, which would take months if not years to galvanize, might backfire and threaten both US interests and the Israeli ally in the Middle East. On the other hand, the US would not be particularly enthusiastic about the transmission of the revolution to the Gulf and the decomposition of long-serving theocracies—Saudi Arabia, etc.
 On the other hand, apart from the Israeli concerns, many in the administration, particularly the realist, believe that an Arab-Muslim democracy, seems an ' 'impossible" aspiration (Gates 2013). There are at least two reasons why the realists are not particularly passionate for a democratic project in the Arab Spring countries. Firstly, they believe that the democratic scope in these countries is contingent and therefore the future would be unpredictable, given the possibility that political Islam might appropriate the democratic game in favour of more hostile radical Islamists. Secondly, America's interventionism is no longer viable, given the recent difficulties (economic in particular) arising from the involvement in Iraq. Such convictions were strongly asserted by—who decried the intervention against Gaddafi and warned against any such intervention in Syria (Gates 2013). Basevich maintains that President Obama has gone beyond his claims of pacifism, and has even recycled and used the Bush Doctrine. America's support for regime change by force, like in Libya's case, would only cause a relapse into wars of destruction whose outcome would be nothing less than total political quandary and regional instability (Basevich 2011; 2013; Jacob Heilbrunn).
The fear of an Iraqi scenario shaped the realists' stance in the direction against military intervention. This applied later to Syria. For instance, Chuck Hagel, the Defense Secretary, and John F. Kerry, Secretary of State have been reluctant to the interventionism doctrine adopted by the liberal hawks: They prefer what can be called 'proxy intervention' through the Syrian rebels and more so through diplomatic pressure on President Bachar Al-Assad. (Heilbrunn 2013). The spectre of war has even developed into a syndrome for the sceptic David Rieff who has cried out "Save us from the liberal hawks.” (Rieff 2013). Rieff's invective against the liberal hawks  internationalists has been fuelled by what he thinks to be their forgetfulness of the "lessons of Iraq". The flagrant push towards interventionism has been promoted by Obama's submission to the wish of "Susan Rice, US ambassador to the United Nations, and Samantha Power, senior director for multilateral affairs at the National Security Council, to intervene in Libya”(Rieff 2013).
 In response to the Syrian war, the Obama Administration did consider a possible intervention in Syria on the gound of R2P (Responsibility to Protect civilians). While the R2P formula worked efficiently in the push for intervention in Libya, Obama's advisers found it more challenging to convince the President to deploy force in Syria on the basis of such formula. Kerry asserted that the driving motive for not pushing for intervention had to do with the complex situation in Syria. Ironically, however, questions are raised as to the reasons why Obama endorsed unquestionably intervention in oil-rich Libya but kept undecided on Syria. Some observers as Moises Naim have refuted the oil thesis, basically because the management of oil by foreign companies under Gaddafi had always been quite smooth. Failure of the Obama administration to take an irrevocable decision in favour of war in Syria had to do with the complexity of Syria's situation, given such factors as the regime's close link with Russia and Iran, the solidity of the Syrian army and most importantly Obama's prudence not to take further risks and his desire to collaborate with NATO and the UN (Naim, 2011 ) .
The liberal hawks have their own interpretation of the differing choices of the administration in its policy towards Libya and Syria. One of the arguments advanced by Obama's cohort is that the caution not to attack Syria derives from the lessons learnt from Libya where hopes for a veritable democracy have failed. Therefore, for them, Obama's Syria approach represents revolutionary 'pragmatism' (Martin Indyk et al 2012). However, for realists, the decision not to intervene in Syria indicates simply Obama's contradictory policies; Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has observed that "Liberals, once characterized as bleeding hearts, seem now to have none at all. They agonize over the slippery slope" (Cohen 2013).

Ill. Obama's Double Standards
The other issue with regard to America's Arab Spring foreign policy approach has been that of inconsistency and double standards. Double standards can mainly be seen in treating the Bahraini uprising of 2011. While the Obama administration has supported, with varying degrees, the revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria, it has failed to condemn the crackdown on Bahraini protesters. The Bahraini approach has also been criticized as a practice that reflects the inability to balance commitment to values with promotion of national interests. (Mohammed Metawe 2013). Supporters of Obama have defended his strategy as pure political and diplomatic commonsense. "The Obama administration has rightly avoided any 'one size fits all' approach to the region", said Brian Katulis (Katulis 2012).
Obama's approach to Bahrain has been most complex due to deeply entrenched US interests in the Arabian Peninsula. The primary reason why the US sought not to support regime change is because the Kingdom hosts the US Fifth Fleet which protects American strategic interests in the Gulf. Afshin Rattansi has recently argued that "the United States will not tolerate democracy in this island kingdom... The USA supports the dictatorship installed here in the 18th century." But for now, Bahrain is where America wants to stay, crushing the hopes and dreams of anyone wanting an "Arab Spring" in the Persian Gulf." (Rattansi 2013). Amnesty International reported in April 2012 that "state violence against those who oppose the Al Khalifah family rule continues, and in practice not much has changed in the country since the brutal crackdown on anti-government protesters in February and March 2011." (Cited in Van Auken 2012). The US has been reluctant to raise the issue and only expressed mild criticism of the human rights violations during the protests (United States Department of State 2011).
The Kingdom of Bahrain is controlled by a pro-Saudi Al-Khalifah Sunni oligarchy, and US presence in the Gulf Peninsula has been vital for both countries. Future threats of Iran could only be deterred by US presence; the Obama Administration would rather support the Bahraini autocracy than risk US oil interests in the region. Paul J. Watson has argued that "there has been virtually zero coverage afforded to Bahrain's struggle for freedom. That probably has plenty to do with the fact that the country is a key launch pad for any future US attack on Iran and the regime is a compliant puppet state for US hegemonic interests." (Watson 2013). Saudi officials blamed the Bahraini uprising on Iran and sent troops to crush the protests. It was revealed in March 2011 that the US strongly backed the Saudi intervention in Bahrain for two reasons. First, the Obama administration was concerned about a possible Iranian take-over of Bahrain; second, as the crackdown on protestors continued, the US sought to conclude a $123 billion arms sale deal with the GCC.[2] (Rozoff2011).

VI. Lost US leadership?
Obama's opponents think that America's leadership has been jeopardized by an excessively cautious and confused foreign policy. According to former Republican contender for US presidency Mitt Romney, American supremacy has received a sharp blow due to Obama's "policy of paralysis" first for tolerating the "diplomatic murders in Libya" (Mark Landler, 2012); and second for not taking serious action towards Syria. Romney's stance was fostered by his adviser Williamsons who saw the assassination of American ambassador in Libya and the attack on American Embassy in Tunisia as a result of Obama's "amateurism" (E. Eriedman and Z. B. Wolf 2012). Romney has also raised the issue of Obama's mismanagement of the Syrian crisis. He argues that the President could have advanced 'robust leadership' by arming the Syrians rebels. Interventionism does not necessarily mean sending American troops to Syria but rather reinforcing the opposition against the tyrannical regime. Obama has conceded power to the UN and "subcontracted" assistance of the Syrian opposition to the UN Secretary-General (Mark Landler 2012).
The uneasy implication of Obama's confused approach is that the US has ceased being the "indispensable nation" as former Secretary of State Madeline Albright confidently assumes (Albright, 2012). Liberal internationalists such as Anne-Marie Slaughter and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich) interpret Albright's "indispensable nation" thesis as part of a new American role in the world that rests on "humanitarian intervention...to defend the oppressed" rather than on crude interventionism for the sake of supremacy assertion (Heilbrunn 2011). It also mainly relates to the R2P formula as discussed in a previous section of this essay. Albright's defence of current US foreign policy under Obama seems mingled with some realism about America's need for international cooperation. But, she defends Obama not by  analysing his foreign policy approach as such but by comparing him to Bill Clinton and by condemning the Republican agenda.

I do not think Americans feel that the US is in decline. We are still a beacon of hope ...we are exceptional. We see demagogical campaigning by Governor Mitt Romney, saying that America is not as strong as it once was. But that simply unmasks his shallow and misguided understanding of foreign policy. (Albright 2012).

Jules Witcover has recently noted that Albright's stance, being appropriated by Hilary Clinton and other liberals to legitimate passive action in Libya and inaction in Syria, has failed to make up for the confused and weak foreign policy approach of the Obama administration. America in Obama's time is far from being the "indispensable nation" (Jules Witcover, 2013). Therefore, what has arisen from Obama's approach is only a "doctrine of American passivity"  through which the president has preferred not to take "the burden of American power and responsibility" (Rubin 2013). And this has to do mainly with the rift between Obama's promises and his inability to push for action. As Richard Cohen has argued, "furious inaction of Obama" threatens America's attachment to its values as well as loss of prominence as a world leader. (Richard Cohen 2013).
Proponents of Obama's approach have forged the doctrine of "leadership from behind" to defend the aims and implications of a new American foreign policy. Forged in 2011 to characterize the US approach to Libya, the doctrine has become a defining element of Obama's future foreign policy. The aim of this doctrine, is to make the US lead pragmatically and with necessary caution, mainly by relying on global partnerships and the rule of international law. In the words of Leslie Gelb, an ardent defender of the doctrine, the US is committed to "Leadership in a new way" in order "to lead effectively...through genuine partnerships" (Gelb 2013). Gelb's identification of the doctrine is a strong reminder of the old Nixonite belief that America should in specific circumstances defend its interests externally by recruiting others to fight proxy wars on its behalf. Leading from behind in Syria's case would mean to push for regime change not by deploying American military force but by recruiting the Syrian rebels.
In the eyes of its critics, the doctrine has been dubbed as a weak link in Obama's foreign policy. Charles Krauthammer warned that the 'behind' thesis constitutes an unabashed call for 'abdicating' rather than leading (Krauthammer 2011) and the realist Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote that the doctrine emanates basically from Obama's desire to "sermonize" rather than "strategize" (Cited in Nile Gardiner 2011). It has even been recommended that Obama should abandon this doctrine and return to the Reagan Doctrine in the hope of recovering America's leading role in the world[3] (Gardiner 2011).
Nevertheless, the democratic hawks argue that both the definition and practice of leadership should be revisited. The US should no longer carry the burden of other "indispensible leader" and making "other countries indispensable partners" (Gelb, 2013). Kerry, who has been an outspoken critic of the liberal hawks' choices, has shown some sympathy with their decisions on Syria. He has warned against generalizations and extensions when it comes to foreign policy choices and the identification of an American leadership.

“When we take action, there are rules of international law, and if the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence being presented, then there are questions in terms of whether the international law supports it” (Cited in Rubin 2013).

Kerry's argument for a non-interventionist leadership means that American power will be determined by caution and prudence and by acting pragmatically under the rule of international law. The burden of US responsibility in the 1990s and early 2000s had caused dramatic losses to American economy, and gained the US more enemies than friends. The Arab Spring would be a significant opportunity for the US to refurbish its image worldwide and to depart from the crude interventionism associated with the Bush Doctrine. Obama's message in this respect was clear-cut:

''we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to try to impose regime change by force—no matter how well-intentioned it may be." (The White House, 2011).

The essay has argued that the US response to the Arab spring reveals a deep conflict between Obama's aspirations to a democratic Middle East and his desire to preserve America's national interests. As discussed in the essay, such interests often contradict with democracy promotion in regions like the Middle East. The essay has tried to show, though implicitly, that the Obama administration cannot choose which interests to protect and which interests to discard. Interests in the Gulf's oil date back to World War II, and Obama would in no way jeopardize such interests; the fear from an Iranian take-over of Bahrain would certainly count more than the desire to see Bahraini citizens go to the polls; hostility to political Islam would definitely make Obama prefer stability over reform in such countries as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia; and the security of Israel would unquestionably make Washington support a military coup in Egypt rather than back a pro-Hamas Islamist regime. The essay has attempted to cover America's response by showing the Obama administration's attitudes to the Arab revolutions as well as its contradictory claims. The contradictory claims reveal four main problems with the administration: slowness of decision, hesitation in taking action, confusion and double standards in handling the different situations, and the lack of a self-identifying leadership.

Nawel Drissi
University of Leicester, United Kingdom


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[1] The exception was the European Union. Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and Commissioner Stefan Fuele asserted their "support and recognition to the Tunisian people and their democratic aspirations, which should be achieved in a peaceful way":
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobilel.world-africa- 9768

[2] For arms deals with Bahrain, see Charles Dunne (2()12) "Barack Obama Sends Mixed Messages with Middle East Policy", 27 Sept. http://www.usnews.pm'debate-club/has-obama-preperly-handlgd-the-arabspring/barack-obama-sends-mixed-messageywith-middle-east-policy

[3] Other observers relate Obama's shaken foreign policy approach—as well as America's declining leadership—not to the Arab Spring as such but to a new world order dictated by rising powers as China as well as the amounting animosity towards the US globally. See Lizza Rayan (2011) "The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring Remade Obama's Foreign Policy", The New Yorker , 2 May
http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/05/02/110502fa fact lizza


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