x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Arab Spring gives US a new chance in the Middle East

Somehow, the US came out of the Arab Spring without losing ground in Middle East public opinion. But can President Obama now show imagination in a changing region?

Barack Obama has not faced the continuing revolutions in the Arab world with any passion. Rather, the US president has often behaved as if these were annoying intrusions into his domestic agenda. Yet change has come, and whether Mr Obama likes it or not this will alter Middle Eastern attitudes toward the United States.

Mr Obama has been lucky - not a bad thing for a politician. The president has avoided taking the lead amid regional convulsions, failing to exploit openings to Washington's advantage. He has not even outlined a strategy defining American interests and aims, beyond the generalities in his speech at the State Department last May. And yet the US administration has almost everywhere managed to fall on its two feet, with limited negative consequences. Those who predicted that the Arab Spring would be a disaster for the US have so far been proven wrong.

For a superpower that has spent 60 years claiming to be a sentinel of Middle Eastern stability, even stalemate, the record recently has been very different. Mr Obama helped push an old friend, Hosni Mubarak, out of office in Egypt. He has sought to midwife a new order in Yemen to replace that led by another partner, Ali Abdullah Saleh. He has blessed the removal of an ally in Tunisia, Zine Al Abedin bin Ali. He is demanding that Bashar Al Assad step down in Syria. And he has used the US military to help unseat Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. US support for the monarchy in Bahrain is the exception confirming the rule.

Mr Obama's paralysing caution has been a mitigating factor. The president has tried, though not very convincingly, to play up the fact that the US, as the world's leading democracy, has a desire to see democracy triumph elsewhere.

However, American abandonment of comrades in Egypt and Tunisia came only when there was no other choice. In Libya, Mr Obama seemed perpetually to move one step forward and two back in sponsoring Nato military action. In Syria it took the president almost six months of slaughter by the regime to take a stance against Mr Assad - though this would have been justified, even essential, much sooner, on both moral and political grounds.

Perception is important in politics. Mr Obama could have accumulated valuable cards by being out ahead of the transformations in the region. Ideas are equally important in this period of Arab upheaval, yet Washington has not been good at using its democratic ideals as a means of influencing what comes next in the Middle East and North Africa.

But perceptions can cut both ways and the reality is that, disturbing contradictions aside, in the public imagination the Americans today are increasingly perceived as having chosen the side of insurgent populations against overbearing despots.

Better still, some of Washington's most ardent foes are finding themselves on the wrong side of the Arab revolts. This is principally because of the situation in Syria. Iran, and more openly its Lebanese client Hizbollah, have openly endorsed Mr Assad, on the grounds that he is a bulwark of the "resistance axis" against Israel.

There have been unsubstantiated reports of Iranians and Hizbollah militants being active in the Syrian repression. Even if this is untrue it doesn't matter, for many Syrian protesters and their sympathisers believe it to be. The reputation of Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's secretary general, has been battered. Syrians have mocked him in satirical sketches, accusing him of hypocritically cheering only those democratic movements that serve his political and sectarian objectives.

Oddly enough, for once the US has come out ahead in the reputation game. At this late stage it is easier to overlook initial American misgivings about popular movements than it is to ignore the fact that Sheikh Nasrallah and Iran are explicitly aligned with a murderous leadership in Damascus. Perhaps that's because they sold themselves for so long as partisans of the deprived, against the indignities imposed by the West, and by the US and Israel in particular. How they must have groaned last week when the Syrian army bombed a Palestinian refugee camp in Latakia.

Does this mean that America will suddenly be liked by Arabs, reversing the glut of polls affirming that it is loathed in the Middle East? Not necessarily. Washington's affection for Israel will remain a drag on its popularity. But popularity isn't everything, and we appear to be entering into a new phase with respect to the potential for change in the American role. We can hope that Mr Obama and his successors will show more imagination than he has demonstrated so far in exploiting the rich possibilities of the moment.

Freed of the accusation that it invariably supports authoritarianism in Arab states, Washington will have greater latitude to assist in bringing about democratic outcomes. This will permit it to end the unhealthy relationships of the past decades, in which American authority rested on leaders who had largely lost their legitimacy by stifling liberty and economic development.

The Middle East is still far from where it needs to be, but for once we can contemplate a radical overhaul that carries societies forward toward authentic pluralism and more balanced prosperity.

Mr Obama has not quite absorbed that the Arab Spring is the best thing that has happened to the US in a long time. In his fixation with properly managing each new revolutionary instalment, the president has missed the inherent magic of what is taking place.

He must catch on quickly, so that the man whose personal triumph embodied the inspiring, the thrilling, can ambitiously redefine America's long-term interaction with an Arab world in thrilling flux.

 

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle.