By Louis René Beres |
President Barack Obama has handled the uprisings in the Arab world very well. Indeed, his pragmatic but principled approach has proven far more effective than any of the alternatives offered by his critics. Even before the uprisings broke out in Tunisia, Egypt, and the rest of the region, Obama had begun a major effort to reach out to Arab and Muslim publics. His 2009 Cairo speech had offered a serious, respectful engagement with many of the very issues which drove and dominated the uprisings. As the uprisings evolved, he laid out a clear set of guiding principles which recognized both Arab popular aspirations and American strategic interests, and has demonstrated admirable strategic patience when challenges emerged.
Obama recognized quickly as the uprisings spread from Tunisia to the rest of the Arab world that the revolutions represented a popular demand for change which could not and should not be stopped. The administration played an important role in persuading the Egyptian military to not use violence against its own people, and put steady pressure on them to follow through on the promised transition to civilian rule. Unlike the Bush administration, which backed away from promoting Arab democracy after the Hamas victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections, or many on the U.S. right who now condemn the Arab Spring for empowering anti-American forces, Obama remained committed to American support for democratic reforms even when Islamist groups did well in free elections. While some suggest that the United States should somehow have manufactured liberal victories in these elections, the reality is that there is no path to democracy in the Arab world which does not involve a significant role for popular, well-organized Islamist movements. Obama has been right to defend the democratic process while also promoting American values, as he did in his forceful September 25 speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
Others in Washington yearn for more assertive American rhetoric about democracy and freedom. But Obama recognized that the people in the streets across the region had no interest in American ownership of their revolts and wisely refrained from rhetorical grandstanding. He urged the governments of the region to reform to meet the demands of their people and offered American assistance for democratic change, but has consistently and correctly emphasized that the drive for change comes not from outside forces but from the people themselves. While Obama is often accused of being behind the curve in responding to the Arab Spring, the fact is that it took only six days for him to call for Hosni Mubarak, one of the longest-serving U.S. allies in the world, to step down. The U.S.-led coalition's intervention protected Libyans from impending massacre, and helped Libyans to topple Muammar Qadhafi and to begin a difficult but surprisingly successful transition to a more democratic Libya.
The administration's efforts have not been perfect, of course. The failure to support the democratic aspirations of Bahrain in March 2011 harmed America's reputation badly, and more could have been done to bring about a more rapid, inclusive, and democratic transition in Yemen. More economic support for transitional countries would have been helpful, but budget constraints and congressional reservations cannot be wished away. Diplomatic efforts in Syria have thus far failed, but the administration has been absolutely correct to resist demands for a military intervention which would have made the conflict even worse while embroiling the U.S. directly in another Iraq-style long, grinding insurgency and civil war.
This month's violent attacks on U.S. embassies involved only a small number of people compared to the vast popular mobilization across the region over the last two years and quickly faded away. They should not be taken as reason to abandon American support for democratic reform in the Arab world. Obama has correctly recognized that American interests are best served over the long term by democratic change and engagement with Arab publics, and refused to panic in the face of challenges.
About Marc Lynch Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington 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
Elizabeth H. Prodromou Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University
Marina Ottaway Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace