By Robert Schlesinger |
President Barack Obama has laid out a bold approach to the Arab Spring. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday, he strongly supported "freedom and self-determination" for all. And in a landmark address last year he went even further than George Bush and his "Freedom Agenda," avowing a United States policy that will "promote reform across the region and…support transitions to democracy."
But while these ideas are stirring in rhetorical sweep, the results have been mixed in practice.
In Egypt, the administration was caught flat-footed by the popular uprising against Hosni Mubarak, and the president called on him to step down only after it became clear he could no longer hold on. When the military caretaker government picked a fight with the administration over U.S. funding for pro-democracy groups, including three American organizations whose offices were raided and closed, and whose employees were put on trial, the administration declined to suspend military assistance.
In the Persian Gulf, the president has let security relationships trump human rights. No public pressure has been placed on Saudi Arabia to reform, let alone to cease its anti-reform efforts elsewhere, and the administration announced a $53 million arms deal with Bahrain despite serious human rights violations. While the president has repeatedly called for the ouster of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, the administration has not committed support to the armed rebellion even after 25,000 Syrian deaths. Iraq, which has been largely forgotten, was transitioning to democracy long before the Arab Spring came along.
There have been successes, to be sure. The intervention in Libya doubtless saved many lives and set the country on the path to democracy. Constructive engagement on the economic front helps emerging democracies buy time to address domestic problems and further reform.
But the inconsistency between rhetoric and action has sent badly mixed signals to Arab publics, and the higher priority consistently awarded to security issues over human rights concerns has encouraged autocrats in their belief that they can weather the democratic storm. If the administration were truly prepared to act on the president's words and implement policies that treat the advance of democracy in the Middle East as a national security interest, the United States would go far in advancing its long-term desire for freedom and stability.
About Charles Dunne Scholar at the Middle East Institute
Brian Katulis Senior Fellow at Center for American Progress
Michael Rubin Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute
Raymond Tanter Founder of the Iran Policy Committee
Jamie M. Fly Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative
Elizabeth H. Prodromou Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University
Marc Lynch Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University
Marina Ottaway Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace