Dances on quick sands: The US and the Arab Spring (Part 7)

Khaled Mansour , Thursday 9 Jan 2014

While some Middle East activists were not impressed by how the US foreign policy establishment danced around the Arab Spring, a closer look shows how delicate this dance was and remains

When Barack Obama addressed the National Defense University in March 2011 to justify the attacks that the US led on Gaddafi troops, he made a reference to US values and responsibilities “to our fellow human beings under such circumstances.” To abdicate "such responsibilities," he said, “would have been a betrayal of who we are.”

This is similar to what Libyan opposition leader Mahmoud Jibril told former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton few weeks earlier in a hotel in Paris in reply to her statement that US “vital interests are not at stake.” Jibril said that the US had to be “coherent in its foreign policy"; it could not "speak of the defence of democracy and abandon the Libyan people.”

This, again, was not a foreign policy decision solely based on Wilsonian idealist motivations, otherwise the same administration would have long intervened in Syria where massacres have taken place and as many as 120,000 people have been killed in what has degenerated in many places into a sectarianised civil war.

The mix of values, interests and presumed effectiveness of available military tools worked for Libya in favour of intervention but not for Syria. Unlike Libya, Syria has a better army, the world is divided about it (Russia that agreed to a Security Council resolution in the case of Libya is the primary ally of the Syrian regime), and, finally, while Gaddafi publicly threatened to exterminate his opponents as rats, Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad largely succeeded in pushing a narrative of his government, authoritarian and all, in a confrontation with Al-Qaeda-like groups of radical Sunni terrorists. It is sadly a partly true narrative, but ironically one that his regime worked hard for a year to create by brutalising peaceful demonstrations and stressing the sectarian nature of his regime.

Why the US went to war in Libya

But why go to war alongside the Europeans in Libya? Could the US have helped provide international legal cover through the Security Council and let NATO do the job without the Pentagon? The answer is No. NATO lacked the American ability to deploy and project military power in a sustained manner. Two weeks after the US left the operations, NATO ran short of munitions, spare parts and fuel, something that “Secretary Gates made fun of," but US industries liked as they charged $250 million in ammunition, parts, fuel and other supplies. Three months later, NATO needed additional drones and the White House had to intervene to free two armed predators. It was one of these drones that hit Gaddafi's convoy in October 2011, near Sirte, after which he was dragged out of a drainage pipe and killed.

All along, Samantha Power and Condoleezza Rice were for intervention in Libya. The former has long been a champion of the Responsibility to Protect paradigm (see her book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, 2002) and the latter for strategic and power projection reasons and not to let the NATO do it alone. But such positions were aided and made possible to dominate and dictate the final decision because of clear and pressing European interests and US military readiness to conditionally engage in Libya.

US foreign policy in Arab Spring countries

Why did the US intervene in Libya but decline to do so in Syria? Why did it criticise Al-Assad and Gaddafi but did not speak much about the Bahraini regime and its failure to open up and include Bahraini Shia? Why was it hesitant on Hosni Mubarak and extremely patient with Ali Abdullah Saleh? Is this a dispute between idealism and pragmatism or a delicate balancing act of interests, values, feasibility of action, cultural assumptions, US government agency positions, and interagency dynamics?

US foreign policy decisions since 2011 in reaction to developments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria revealed how all these considerations interact to shape its policy. No one single school (realist or idealist) or approach to understanding how US foreign policy evolves and what drives it can suffice. Hard strategic interests of the US (or allies) obviously had primacy, but when they were not in clear and present danger and the cost of intervention for purely humanitarian reasons, or to uphold US values, was reasonable, Washington acted. When there are no clear national interests on one side or the other, and the price of action is high, as in the case of Syria, then Washington does not act.

The major dominant factor in shaping US foreign policy was the need to ensure regional stability, followed by the desire to uphold certain human rights and prevent likely massive abuses, when possible. Regional stability is a function of the need to secure the free flow of oil and also to avoid the emergence of anti-American regimes. The specter of Islamic rule is not as frightening as commentators tend to believe as long as these Islamists are not anti-American.

The primacy of stability

After all, the major Arab allies of the US in the region are conservative Islamic regimes in places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Morocco. This could mean an integration of the ruling Islamists of Tunisia and Libya (those in Egypt were deposed in July to partial dismay from Washington) as long as they maintain moderate positions on religious minorities and women rights and continue to support, or at least not challenge, US interests in the region.

The stability of autocratic Arab regimes served US foreign interests in the region because the US always feared what Vali Nasr summarised in his recent prognosis for the Middle East post the Arab Spring: “There will be civil wars, broken states, sectarian persecutions, humanitarian crises, faltering economies, and new foreign policy challenges (ranging from warming relations between Egypt and Iran to new issues to fight over with Russia and China) — nothing resembling a resounding march to democracy and economic prosperity, and no clear embrace of free institutions and norms.”

Nasr’s negative prognosis is still a distinct possibility, though maybe not in such a dramatic way.

Egypt’s Islamists, for example, have strongly sided with Saudi Arabia against Iran, even deploying sectarian Sunni versus Shia rhetoric. Had it not been for long enmities between the two parties since they disagreed on the Iraq invasion of Kuwait and Riyadh's preference to deal with the more amenable Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood may have developed a better working relationship with Riyadh.

But nobody likes change, especially when it is turbulent. Clinton told Obama as they pondered what would happen in Egypt after Mubarak fell: “This will probably turn out alright ... but it will take 25 years.”

Nasr and his ilk seem to believe that all nations move inexorably in stages towards an ideal end state. This is partly why they would prefer (or accept) dictatorial stagnation to forced change, which can go bad. The dramatic change in the Middle East, however, was neither instigated nor stoppable by the US unless it wanted to take after the steps of King Canute and attempt to stop the tide. It was indeed the realistic rather than the idealistic approach that prevailed.

Yet again, the decision to let go of stability for a few years was premised on the impossibility of maintaining it with these rotting regimes. Obama told his staff after a tense conversation with Mubarak on 2 February, that he was "not going to back a dying dictator with the faint hope of buying a few more years of stability. This would only perpetuate a failed American approach, one that left Egyptians understandably bitter.”

The Saudis and the Israelis vehemently disagreed and tried to defend Mubarak.

A new approach to US policy in the region

In a major policy speech in May 2011, Obama articulated this somewhat new approach to policy in the region: “For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region: countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce, and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel's security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace. We will continue to do these things, with the firm belief that America's interests are not hostile to peoples' hopes; they are essential to them ... [because] the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind … After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.”

Perhaps Obama was too optimistic. He certainly could not deliver on his promise and realpolitik seemed to creep back in to dominate US policymaking on the region.

With its production capacity and reserves, Middle East oil will continue to shape US foreign policy because the stability of these regimes is intrinsic to global economic stability. “The oil market is fungible — a shortage or a high price in one corner means higher prices everywhere else. If the Asian states lose their Middle East supply, their demand for oil will not go away — it will simply push prices higher … we should not think that oil supply problems suffered by our allies and major trading partners will somehow leave our economy unaffected … we must still keep viewing stability in the Middle East as a vital American interest,“ Nasr said.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia would most likely agree, but advised an opposite policy to what the US did. The king “was insistent that Obama needed to stick with Mubarak, even if he started shooting protesters in the street.” In 2013, Saudi Arabia made it known that it would make up for any US aid cuts to Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood was ejected from power.

Israel’s security was largely absent from the calculus of US decision making regarding the Arab Spring in 2011 as it was not under any clear threat. Israel preferred Mubarak to stay, but this was not good enough reason for the US to prop up the sinking Pharaoh of Egypt. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told Obama that he “needed to stay in firm support of Mubarak, no matter what.” His advice was ignored.

Counterterrorism as a driver of US policy

Counterterrorism was a main driver of US policy on the Yemen popular uprising in 2011. “The US saw Yemen as a necessary partner in the fight against Al-Qaeda and gave the country $300 million a year in counter-terror aid,” said Ghattas. But there is no evidence that counterterrorism played more than a secondary role in the cases of Libya and Egypt, since the US military was not actively operating in these two countries and since the army in Egypt, which chaperoned the transition, was a beneficiary of existing US-Egyptian military relations.   

American values supporting democracy and human rights played a role in the Libyan transition and to a much lesser extent in Egypt. However, there does not seem to be a major reformulation of US foreign policy in this regard, nor actual measures on the ground to integrate such concerns and values.

In his May 2011 policy speech, Obama touched on various principles to guide the "new" US foreign policy in the region. They included: “free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders  -– whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran … Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest … it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.”

But Congress would not support such promises, nor would the economic recession help Obama effectively push for them. For two years in a row, additional money has been requested for Middle East democratisation programmes but has not been approved by Congress. The State Department still persists with a half-billion dollar request for the 2014 budget.

This also indicates the limits on US influence in the region. It is true that the US no longer has the prestige nor the resources to dominate Middle East affairs. Nor does Europe have the great financial resources needed to shape prospects in Arab Spring countries other than marginally. Whether China, India and any other rising economic power would come into the fray is still unclear.

Scenarios of the Arab Spring

Washington was shocked by the unfolding of the Arab Spring and torn between apocalyptic scenarios drawn up by the likes of Nasr and feared by Clinton and the need to accept what was fast transpiring and make the best out of it. It is evident why the transition away from the stifling autocratic regimes of decades to more democratic ones will have to be long, but the only reason to think that it would be impossible is the belief that the political culture in the region, largely due to Islam, is hostile to democracy, hence stability can only be secured through authoritarianism and autocracy.

Many officials in the US and the fallen dictatorial regimes in the Middle East had a set view of the cultural politics of the region; they believed that pressure from society would not be able to change the ruling regimes — that the societies had become totally morally corrupt and that any change would be through the naked force of the army or through a very long and slow process of modernisation.

Some activists in the Middle East region were not impressed by how Obama and the US foreign policy establishment danced around the issues of the Arab Spring in 2011-2013, but a closer look shows how delicate this dance had been and how it might have changed US foreign policy premises in the Middle East to an extent.  

A whole generation in Washington will miss the time when Mubarak was around. “All you had to do was make one phone call. Now you have to make one hundred,” according to one longtime American official. Some analysts will also miss these days and will have to revise some assumptions on democratisation and the drivers of US foreign policy in the Middle East and the region’s political culture.


The author is an Egyptian writer who worked for over 20 years in the United States, Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa both as a journalist and as a United Nations official. He now lives and works in Cairo.


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