I must admit, I do have a twinge of sympathy for President Obama from time to time. For instance, the revolutionary wave that is sweeping North Africa and the Mideast is potentially as momentous as the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Not only that, but the rebellions add an element of deep uncertainty to the volatile mix of oil and Islamic fundamentalism that already makes that region fraught with risk for the globe.
Obama’s problem is that no matter what happens in the revolts taking place across the region, there will be many in the US and across the world who will tag him for it. It is somewhat reminiscent of the “who lost China?” accusations that went back and forth in Washington in the 1950’s after Mao’s army won control of the world’s most populous country for Communism. It doesn’t matter whether he or the the combined wisdom of the US State Department could have done anything to alter the outcome, the consequences will be part of Obama’s legacy.
So it would be helpful from the get-go to have a coherent policy. Again, it’s not altogether Obama’s fault that we don’t. For fifty years, American policy has been to support those dictators who are our friends in the region and to oppose those who are not. When dictators across the board are being confronted by demands for political freedom, that history prevents us from taking any position other than a variant of the previous hodgepodge.
Once again, George W. Bush is vindicated. His “freedom agenda,” much as it was scorned by the sophisticates of the realist school of foreign policy, was the one sound policy approach that would have enabled us to present a common approach to all the conflagrations going on in the region. With autocratic allies, Bush firmly pressed for political liberalization; with adversaries, our voice unequivocally supported those who aspired to freedom. The policy prescription was the right one; in the current circumstances it would have positioned us on the side of the protesters and against the dictators, whether friend or foe.
The Obama approach is complicated by the fact that for the last two years one of his most ardently held objectives was to prove that “we are not Bush.” Thus Iran’s vicious suppression of the Green Revolution went virtually unremarkeded by an administration keen to “engage” the mullahs in fruitless negotiations over their nuclear program. Similarly, Hillary Clinton spoke of Syria’s Assad Junior as a “reformer” as his troops and allies use live ammunition on protesters in that country. Even in Libya, the administration continues to obfuscate over whether the current “kinetic military action” is intended to depose Gaddafi or not.
But the problem goes deeper than that. One of Obama’s first foreign policy initiatives was the series of apology tours he took to distance his administration from the supposedly unilateral and world-offending policies of the Bush years. At the same time, the Obama approach to world problems was one of deferral to world bodies such as the UN, and diffuse leadership such as we are now seeing in the Libya exercise. Rather than restoring America’s standing in the world, however, this approach has had the effect – perhaps desired – of diminishing our unique status of global leadership. Hence, despite the clear disapproval of the White House, Saudia Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to participate in the bloody crackdown on protesters there. America’s leadership has been devalued.
Bernard Lewis, one of the West’s most knowledgeable observers of the Middle East, gave a fascinating interview to the weekend Wall Street Journal. In it, he says that the Arab traditions of the pre-modern era were supportive of limited government, albeit not in the form of the Jeffersonian democracy that we tend to associate with the concept. Rather, Arab governance tended to be one of balanced interests among tribes, sects, merchants, and mosques, where the sultan led by forming consensus. It was only in the post-World War II era that the engines of totalitarian control came to be used in the Middle East – one reason, he says, why Muslims are so suspicious of modernism.
These popular revolts may result in some cases in a return to those traditions, and if so should be welcomed by the West. The mistake would be – and here the Bush policy did err – in insisting on elections to validate the idea of diffuse political power. Elections in societies that have yet to build the institutions of democracy, such as legal protections, free press, formation of interest groups and the like, tend to end up in governments with false legitimacy: “one man, one vote, once.”
It takes a long time to build such institutions, and in the current environment, time is not a plentiful commodity. This is why the freedom agenda had such merit – at its best, it was intended to foster this type of gradual institutional maturation. Now that the revolutions are upon us, we will just have to adapt to whatever emerges – whether that is the Muslim Brotherhood, an enlightened popular government, or military dictatorship 2.0. Our ability to influence the outcome is distressingly limited.
And yet, the outcome – make that, outcomes – are likely to play an outsized role in Obama’s political future.