Debate Club

Obama Is Unwilling to Lead the U.S. Response to the Arab Spring

By + More

Although more reticent about democracy promotion than his predecessor George W. Bush, President Barack Obama made engagement of the Muslim world a centerpiece of his early foreign travels, most clearly in his Cairo speech of June 2009, in which he pledged to "seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world" and stated that the United States would support fundamental freedoms everywhere.

But when confronted with the stark choice of supporting the regimes or backing the cell phone touting masses who took to the region's streets beginning in Tunisia in December 2010, the president wavered. Time after time, he hesitated, just as he had in June 2009 when the people of Iran sought to topple the ruling clerical regime.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

Although he eventually corrected U.S. policy in some cases, backing the ouster of erstwhile allies, it was often too late, with those now taking over control questioning whether America was truly on their side. This was embodied in the refusal of young Egyptian activists to meet with senior U.S. officials in the months that followed Hosni Mubarak's ouster and their pelting of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's convoy with tomatoes during her visit to Alexandria in July 2012.

The secular opposition in some countries was fractured and had difficulty coalescing, making U.S. support even more important, but often the funding and support did not follow as quickly as offered. With the emergence of Islamist leaders in some countries, most notably Egypt, it became even more difficult to shape the aftermath of these revolutions. The administration seemed hesitant to effectively use the leverage it had with these countries, reluctant to use arms sales to Bahrain or aid to Egypt to back up American values with action for fear of provoking the governments in question.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the turmoil in the Middle East.]

This was even more apparent in the revolutions that evolved into civil wars. In Libya, after some initial reluctance to get involved, the president pivoted and authorized a military effort to protect civilians that eventually led to the demise of Muammar Qadhafi. The administration's desire to overlearn the lessons of Iraq led to a hands off approach to postconflict Libya. The nascent Libyan government was essentially left on its own, with little assistance to rein in the militias and weapons proliferation that came as a result of NATO's air operation and the president's refusal to put boots on the ground. In Syria, the United States has stood by as tens of thousands have been killed, not willing to back up President Obama's demands that Bashar al-Assad step down with American action.

The common thread that weaves together the U.S. response to the Arab Spring has thus been unwillingness by the Obama administration to assertively lead. The people of the region, from the streets to the halls of power, have far too often been left to question America's commitment to their cause and to wonder what U.S. policy is toward their countries. This has created a vacuum in which other actors have attempted to fill the void, often in ways that do not comport with U.S. interests. It also has weakened America's standing in the region and in the broader world and created costs that the United States will likely have to deal with for years to come. As one Syrian near the besieged city of Aleppo told The Washington Post in August, "America will pay a price for this. America is going to lose the friendship of Syrians, and no one will trust them anymore. Already we don't trust them at all."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

In March 2011, explaining his decision to intervene in Libya to the American people, President Obama said, "Wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States. Ultimately, it is that faith–those ideals–that are the true measure of American leadership."

In his response to the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring, the president is failing his own test of American leadership.

  • Join the debate on Facebook.
  • Follow U.S. News Debate Club on Twitter.
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.
  • Jamie M. Fly

    About Jamie M. Fly Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative

    Tags
    foreign policy
    Egypt
    Libya
    Middle East
    Obama, Barack

    Other Arguments

    #1
    63 Pts
    U.S. Faces Challenges in Arab World, but Obama Is on Right Track

    Yes – U.S. Faces Challenges in Arab World, but Obama Is on Right Track

    Brian Katulis Senior Fellow at Center for American Progress

    #2
    39 Pts
    Obama Speaks Often But Does Little on Mideast Foreign Policy

    No – Obama Speaks Often But Does Little on Mideast Foreign Policy

    Michael Rubin Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

    #3
    -2 Pts
    Barack Obama Sends Mixed Messages With Middle East Policy

    No – Barack Obama Sends Mixed Messages With Middle East Policy

    Charles Dunne Scholar at the Middle East Institute

    #7
    -33 Pts
    Obama Recognizes Need to Embrace Democratic Change in Arab World

    Yes – Obama Recognizes Need to Embrace Democratic Change in Arab World

    Marc Lynch Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University

    #8
    -34 Pts
    Obama's Approach to the Arab Spring Protects U.S. Interests

    Yes – Obama's Approach to the Arab Spring Protects U.S. Interests

    Marina Ottaway Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

    You Might Also Like


    See More