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Obama Attempts To Get In Step With Arab Spring

  • Robert Tait

U.S. President Barack Obama is set to deliver what has been billed as a keynote speech on the Middle East at the State Department.

U.S. President Barack Obama is set to deliver what has been billed as a keynote speech on the Middle East at the State Department.

It sounded like a good idea at the time.

Delivering his inaugural address in front of the Capitol building in January 2009, a newly anointed U.S. President Barack Obama struck a measured pose of enlightened pragmatism. Before a television audience of billions around the globe, he offered to "reach out a hand" to hostile governments, which he nonetheless warned would have to mend their ways or risk being "on the wrong side of history."

After the traumas of the George W. Bush era, marked by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and an escalating confrontation with Iran, it seemed like a breath of fresh air and a template for new U.S. thinking on the Middle East.

What a difference two years make. Indeed, in just five months, the White House has been forced to tear up the script on one of the world's most volatile and strategically vital regions as a wave of protest that has come to be known as the "Arab Spring" has toppled or undermined authoritarian regimes from Tunisia in North Africa to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.

Just how radically the United States has been forced to alter its thinking will become apparent on May 19, when Obama delivers what has been billed as a keynote speech on the Middle East at the State Department.

Thinking Big

On the eve of the speech, White House officials provided a revealing glimpse of the new approach by announcing that it would give billions of dollars in aid to support Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries embracing democracy. That presages an approach stressing the importance of economic reform and development as an essential handmaiden to democracy.

Invoking the experience of Central and Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism in 1989, one administration official told reporters that the United States would promote the importance of "better economic management" in emerging Middle East democracies, along with economic stability, economic modernization and reform, and developing a framework for trade integration and investment.

In a move that also has echoes of the Marshall Plan aid after World War II, the United States will relieve Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt and lend or guarantee up to another $1 billion. Institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are to provide a further $2 billion-$3 billion in what is being described as "the beginning of a long-term effort."

Coming in the wake of the resignation of former Senator George Mitchell as Middle East peace envoy, Obama's address is also expected to include a fresh attempt at kick-starting the Arab-Israeli peace process, something that would take place against a drastically altered background following the recent rapprochement between the two rival Palestinian groups, Fatah and Hamas. Israeli newspaper reports -- citing purported early drafts -- say the president will urge Israel to return to its 1967 borders and to cease building settlements on the West Bank, while calling for a resumption of stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.

The Obama administration has played down such suggestions, saying no draft of the speech has been distributed. But White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama would offer "specific ideas" on how to meet the "democratic aspirations" of the people of the region. "He'll talk specifically about ways that we can best support that positive change, while focusing on our core principles: nonviolence, support for human rights, and support for political, and economic reform," Carney told reporters.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (right) was a longtime U.S. ally.

Hesitant, Muted Reaction

The speech comes amid a welter of criticism that official U.S. reaction to the wave of revolts that have convulsed the Middle East has been marked by dithering, confusion, and inconsistency.

In Egypt, an initial description by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of President Hosni Mubarak's regime as "stable" was superseded by calls for him to stand down as protests mounted -- but not before an administration envoy, Frank Wisner, called for him to be allowed to stay in office to supervise an "orderly transition."

With Libya, the early U.S. response to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's brutal crackdown on opponents was hesitant and muted before a UN Security Council resolution led to NATO air strikes.

In the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, the United States has remained silent as its close ally Saudi Arabia sent troops to help quell a rebellion among the Shi'ite-majority population against the pro-Western Sunni monarchy. A similar reticence has greeted unrest in Saudi Arabia itself as well as in allied states like Jordan and Morocco.

Syria too -- despite being an adversary of the United States and Israel and an ally of Iran -- has presented a problem. Having described the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, as a "reformer," Clinton now stands accused by some analysts of handing the regime a moral pretext to embark on a killing spree that human rights groups say has left at least 800 protesters dead over the past two months.

'Hesitation Is A Policy'

Clearly U.S. policy has been wrong-footed -- with the knock-on effect that the United States' popular standing, albeit never high in the first place, has fallen through Washington being seen to tacitly side with hated autocratic regimes.

Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East specialist at the London-based Chatham House think tank, says the Obama administration has been caught unawares by its declared policy of being prepared to engage with authoritarian governments -- a policy that, rhetorically at least, initially included Iran. Such pragmatism, welcomed by many at the start of Obama's presidency, now seems jarringly out of step with movements that are demanding freedom and democracy.

At the same time, Shehadi argues, Obama will pay a high price unless he abandons the ambiguous policy toward Assad, who has been given some leeway in part because his regime is deemed to have delivered a measure of peace with Israel.

"I think someone like President Obama or even the EU do [sic] not have the luxury of hesitating or being neutral or being vague because vagueness, hesitation, and neutrality are themselves a position," Shehadi says. "Being vague about Bashar al-Assad at this moment in time is an expression of support to the regime and will be interpreted by the regime as a carte blanche for them to continue suppressing the revolt and it's like giving them a license to kill."

On May 18, the United States announced it was punishing Assad by imposing sanctions, including the freezing of assets, on him.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood emerged from the anti-Mubarak protests as a strong political force.

Fears Of Islamic Radicalism

But in abandoning Assad or other Middle East dictators, U.S. policymakers are confronted with the worrying uncertainty of not knowing what comes next. Supporting protest movements, however justified the cause may be, inevitably runs the risk of producing a government whose policies run counter to Washington's interests.

One fear, largely unspoken though clearly at the heart of U.S. hesitation, is of anti-Western Islamist governments emerging that would implement strict interpretations of Shari'a law.

Writing in "The National Interest" on May 17, Hossein Askari accused the Obama administration of "ineptly fumbling" its way through the Arab uprisings and suggested that the president change course by identifying the kind of Islam the United States can support. "The most important consideration in the region is the commitment to Islam as laid down in the Koran and practiced by the Prophet Muhammad," Askari wrote. "The United States and other outside powers should not confuse this with the practice of the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia or of the mullahs of Iran. The essence of Islam is social and economic justice and the unity of mankind."

Yet that approach may be problematic given that the predominant tone of most of the protests has been secular, despite the best efforts of Iran to depict them as an "Islamic awakening." Shehadi warns that defining an "acceptable Islam" could be counterproductive. Instead, he says, the United States should simply accept that the current changes are irreversible.

Getting with the protests will also require embracing a pro-democracy agenda espoused -- though later quietly abandoned -- by the preceding Bush administration, which publicly advocated elections in the Middle East. That policy backfired in 2006 when Hamas -- defined by Washington as a terrorist organization -- won elections to the Palestinian legislative council, much to the chagrin of the United States and Israel.

Yet being seen to publicly oppose elections would be a hard position for any U.S. president to sustain.

And, Shehadi says, Obama has little alternative but to recognize that circumstances have rendered his argument with Bush over the value of engaging dictators meaningless.

"President Obama is sort of trapped in his engage-nist [sic] policy. He started saying, 'I want to engage with these dictators.' And this engagement issue has become an internal issue in the United States [between Democrats and Republicans]," Shehadi says.

"What President Obama has to realize is that his fight with George Bush is finished. It's no longer an internal issue. This is a matter of a regime which is brutally killing its people. What's happening in the broader region also needs a clear policy from the United States because the United States needs to be seen to be sticking to its values and not cynically engaging with some dictators and being against others."