By Robert Schlesinger |
President Barack Obama did not properly handle the situation in the Middle East. American policy could have determined the outcome of the Arab Spring. Had the United States continued to express strong support for Mubarak, the Egyptian president would not have been able to stay in power after losing domestic acceptance and most importantly, the support of his own military. No amount of U.S. assistance for or covert financing of liberal parties in Tunisia and Egypt would have altered the outcome of elections, given the state of disorganization and the internecine squabbling in the secular camp. A more decisive military intervention in Libya would probably have accelerated the fall of Muammar Qadhafi, but also turned the United States into an occupying power deeply embroiled in nation-building—not a happy thought in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan. Ditto for an intervention in Syria, with the difference that war in Syria would not be casualty-free.
The real question thus is whether Obama's actions are safeguarding U.S. interests in the Middle East post-uprisings. The answer is by and large yes. He was right to accept the results of elections in Tunisia and Egypt even if they brought to power Islamist parties. The rise of Islamists is a fact on the ground the United States cannot change, and it is important to keep channels of communications to those governments open, particularly because the ruling Ennahda party in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt appear to be learning quickly that governing requires pragmatism, not ideology. Obama's pressure on Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi after the attack on the embassy had a sobering effect on Egypt, which is now accepting its responsibility to protect diplomatic missions. And the Libyan government has been extremely cooperative since the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens—the problem there is not ill will but lack of control over the country.
The real question concerns the use of force, most notably with Syria and Iran. The lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan are sobering. Iraq is free of Saddam Hussein, but closer to Iran then to the United States. The Taliban operates freely in Afghanistan, including among troops the United States is training. Intervention in Iran may eventually be needed to keep it from becoming a nuclear power. Obama is right not to use it in Syria to determine a political outcome.
About Marina Ottaway Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
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
Marc Lynch Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University