The Middle East is not the main theme of former US president Barack Obama’s new autobiography by any means, but in his book A Promised Land he nevertheless provides vivid details about the Arab Spring, one of major challenges of his first term in office.
The Obama administration was widely seen as being behind the curve in its response to the uprisings that rocked first Tunisia in December 2010 and then spread to several other Arab countries in the months that followed.
Its policies fostered uncertainty as they fluctuated from reinforcing the status quo to disrupting it. The Obama administration oscillated between confusion in Egypt and Yemen, inaction in Syria and direct intervention in Libya.
At least two books have thus far provided an insight into Obama’s diplomacy towards the Arab Spring, including internal discussions inside the administration about the revolts that erupted throughout North Africa and the Middle East in 2011.
These are The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House by Ben Rhodes, a former Obama aide and speech writer, and Into the Hands of the Soldiers: Freedom and Chaos in Egypt and the Middle East by David Kirkpatrick, a former New York Times reporter in Cairo.
By and large these books, together with former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s leaked e-mails, and other accounts that have come through secondary sources, are as nothing in comparison with words coming straight from the horse’s mouth in shedding light on Obama’s unpredictable Middle Eastern posture.
Among the rich menu of possible crises in the Middle East that Obama speculated he would deal with after he took office in January 2009 were the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iraq war, Iran’s nuclear programme and the Al-Qaeda terror network.
But he did not foresee fully-fledged popular unrest and regime changes that would have significant implications for US foreign policy in the region, which had traditionally centred on maintaining stability to serve its own geopolitical and economic interests.
Apart from the human-rights issues that his team used to put on the agenda of some meetings with Arab leaders and statements by the US State Department about violations, the Obama administration showed no real action in translating such concerns into concrete policies.
Was it caught off guard by the outbreak of the demonstrations in 2011, and did US intelligence fail to predict the Arab uprisings that toppled some of the US’s closest allies and threatened others?
In his memoirs, Obama does not say whether the White House had foreseen the uprisings prior to the protests, but some of his remarks could be illuminating about his administration’s expectations that political and social troubles were about to erupt in the Middle East.
According to Obama’s narrative in the book, he began sensing troubles hovering over the Middle East as early as summer 2010, which prompted him to seek advice from his National Security Council (NSC) on options in case things went wrong.
Obama discloses that a NSC panel he appointed presented him with a “Presidential Study Directive” stating that US interests in stability across the Middle East and North Africa were adversely affected by the “US’s uncritical support of authoritarian regimes.”
He writes that in August 2010 he used that Directive to instruct the US State Department, Pentagon, CIA and other government agencies to “examine ways the United States could encourage meaningful political and economic reforms in the region.”
The goal of the Directive was to “nudge those nations closer to the principles of open government, so that they might avoid the destabilising uprisings, violence, chaos and unpredictable outcomes that so often accompanied sudden change,” he writes.
During that summer, the NSC team, which comprised Samantha Power, Dennis Ross, Gayle Smith and Jeremy Weinstein, set about conducting biweekly meetings with Middle East experts from across the US government to develop specific ideas for reorienting policy.
Nothing in the book is said about the outcome of the NSC discussions or whether the US intelligence agencies, which usually pay close attention and utilise the best analytical methods to monitor the region, had any insight into the upheavals that would erupt soon in the Middle East.
What is evident in the book, however, is an administration that was divided on political and ideological lines between two diametrically opposed generations of politicians and bureaucrats and headed by a deeply conflicted president who was known for his confused logic, concern for his political future and impacts on his chances of a second term.
By 2011, the question of how the Obama administration would handle the popular protests had intensified. The most pressing questions were whether Washington would shift away from decades of support for autocratic governments in the region and if it had a vision or a strategy to deal with the monumental changes that were happening in each country and an altered political landscape.
Egypt’s uprising provided the first sign of Obama’s early political wariness, desperation and inaction. The key question at the time was whether the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak would embolden “Political Islam” and allow the Muslim Brotherhood or other Salafi-conservative and radical Islamist groups to take over.
While Obama admits that he received warnings from Middle Eastern political leaders and experts that the Muslim Brotherhood would exploit the chaos to take power in more Arab nations, his response was off the cuff and arrogant.
“I had told him [Mohamed Bin Zayed] I hoped to work with him and others to avoid having to choose between the Muslim Brotherhood and potentially violent clashes between governments and their people,” Obama writes about a conversation he had with the crown-prince of Abu Dhabi.
Obama’s incoherent hotchpotch of policies towards the uprisings in Bahrain, Libya, Syria and Yemen were again full of rhetoric, fraught with contradictions, and failed to address some of the more difficult realities in the Middle East.
In a stunning confession, Obama admits that he “had no elegant way to explain the apparent inconsistency” in his policies towards the Arab Spring uprisings other than to “acknowledge that the world was messy; that in the conduct of foreign policy, I had to constantly balance competing interests, interests shaped by the choices of previous administrations and the contingencies of the moment.”
There is a basis for Obama’s excuses and justifications here in US Middle East policies, which have always been unbalanced, lopsided, self-centred, biased and have ignored the interests of the region’s people.
Nevertheless, the case against Obama’s approach to the Arab Spring is that he was not upending decades of American relations with the Arabs as his advocates claim, but was continuing US Middle East policies that tried to use the region’s nations and its people as experimental guinea pigs.
What Hillary Clinton’s released emails reveal about this period casts additional light on the flawed diplomatic approach of the Obama administration to the Arab uprisings, especially in Egypt.
Instead of Obama’s cautious conceptual strategy, his secretary of state adopted a more proactive policy-driven process with the clear objective of a transition to a new order but without a clear direction.
Whatever “inconsistencies” there were in the administration’s policies and the fact that the State Department might have diverged from the White House line, the United States ended up following a path not compatible with the objectives of the uprisings.
It tried simultaneously to encourage and to contain the forces of the uprising in Egypt and to urge a transition to a new system with a coalition of opposition groups and figures, including the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement whose slogan “Islam is the solution” was a potent recipe for division and ideological conflict.
The Obama administration’s main goal was to encourage an Islamist-led government in Egypt towards pragmatism, a gambit that soon backfired when the first post-uprising president, Mohamed Morsi, tried to translate his election victory into political power for his Muslim Brotherhood group, thereby creating deep political divisions within the country and across the region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly