By Teresa Welsh |
President Barack Obama's address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday amounted to both defense and elaboration of his handling of the Arab Spring that began almost two years ago in Tunisia and, since then, has spread across the Middle East and North Africa. Obama reminded us of the places where U.S. involvement gave measurable traction to the end of authoritarian regimes and dictatorships; equally important, the president clarified the liberal, democratic principles and security priorities that are nonnegotiable for continuing U.S. support for the Arab Spring movements.
The president's speech should quiet the chattering classes who have offered an echo chamber for the charges of Republican Party presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who recently charged that Obama's mistakes are threatening to turn the Arab Spring into an Arab Winter. Compressed in Romney's sound byte are claims that Obama has pandered to Muslim-majority countries ever since his post-inaugural trips to Turkey and Egypt, thereby ceding U.S. influence in the strategically-important Middle East, aggravating Israel's vulnerability to Iran, and exposing U.S. diplomatic personnel to terrorist attacks like the one that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya two weeks ago, when a video disparaging Islam's prophet Muhammed produced a paroxysm of anti-American violence from Benghazi to Jakarta.
Undoubtedly, election politics are driving Romney's catch-all condemnation of Obama's strategy for the Arab Spring. Even so, the criticisms are worth serious exploration, because they can help Americans to understand the challenges and limitations of U.S. engagement with the Arab Spring movements.
Obama's efforts to prioritize diplomacy and dialogue with Muslim-majority countries, based on a strategy of highlighting shared values and interests, was the furthest thing from pandering to possible foes. Instead, he chose a rational strategy of using soft power to restore America's reputation and influence around the world, as well as to staunching the economic hemorrhage caused by the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The president's approach meant that, when the Arab Spring events began in Tunisia, the United States was well positioned to help the transition towards liberal, democratic governance in Middle East and North Africa civil society and governments.
It's both politically disingenuous and historically uninformed for U.S. pundits to ignore the fact that the violent backlash against America, brutally expressed in terrorist atrocities like those of Sept. 11, 2001 and Sept. 11, 2012, are partly the legacy of a Cold War foreign policy inherited by President Obama. Washington long traded off the risks of democracy for the certainties of order in Middle East and North Africa countries writ large; instructive cases include the Shah's Savak, Mubarak's kleptocrats, the Kemalist Deep State, and the hypersecuritization of Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza.
The commitment to the defeat of Bolshevism and the survival of Israel under the factually-challenged rubric of "secular democracy" goes a long way toward explaining the dangerous devolution of the Arab Spring into an anarchic struggle between two camps whose only shared features are their anti-Americanism and their incompatibility with liberal democracy: on the one hand, self-styled religious purists who justify violence against other confessions as a necessary tool to safeguard political sovereignty and cultural liberation, and on the other hand, latter-day Jacobins who endorse violence against fellow citizens or other states as the prophylaxis against religious fundamentalism.
It's worth emphasizing that Arab Spring leaders and publics who critique Obama and the United States, whether for too much interventionism or too little assistance, risk hiding behind the inconvenient truths which now threaten the noble struggle for individual freedom and political self-determination that inspired the Arab Spring movements. Specifically, political democracy and economic liberty demand a political culture of tolerance and the unwavering practice of rule-of-law: Blasphemy and defamation-of-religion laws, economic corruption and disenfranchisement, resorting to vigilante justice and state force to resolve differences, and wars and occupation are the surest guarantees that the Arab Spring will turn to a prolonged winter that affects all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa region.
In short, it would be either victimology or hubris to pretend that any U.S. president can determine the fate of the Arab Spring countries.
About Elizabeth H. Prodromou Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University
Brian Katulis Senior Fellow at Center for American Progress
Michael Rubin Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute
Charles Dunne Scholar at the Middle East Institute
Raymond Tanter Founder of the Iran Policy Committee
Jamie M. Fly Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative
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