America's approach to the ructions of the Arab Spring fail to promote either democracy or its own interests in the region.
As Obama abandons democracy, the US foreign policy suffers
Amid the violence in the Middle East since 2011, the term “Arab Spring” has become more a source of mockery than inspiration.
Eight years ago, democratisation, the idea at the very heart of the Arab “Spring”, meant something. It was the centrepiece of former president George W Bush’s second inaugural address. But president Barack Obama reversed this and adopted what his advisers claimed was a “realist” foreign policy that focuses on furthering national interests. The consequences have been disconcerting, as the United States today seems lost between apathy towards democracy and human rights on the one hand, and a very shaky grasp of realism on the other.
Americans tended to react with scepticism to Mr Bush’s call to arms. To many of them, the Arab world was not a place institutionally or culturally prepared for democracy. Their doubts were echoed in the words of a former US national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, who was speaking specifically of the Iraqis: “It’s not that I don’t believe Iraq is capable of democracy. But the notion that within every human being beats this primeval instinct for democracy has not ever been demonstrated to me.”
The influential writer and former State Department official Francis Fukuyama broadly agreed, in a 2006 book titled America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy. For him, liberal democracy was a possible by-product of the modernisation process, not a default system to which societies reverted once dictators were removed. That this appeared to contradict his earlier writings to the effect that the end of the Cold War had brought an “end of history” characterised by the ideological triumph of liberal democracy was irrelevant.
Few westerners would disagree with Mr Fukuyama at present, at least when observing the Arab world. All over, it seems, popular uprisings against despots, initially interpreted as healthy signs of a democratic instinct, have turned sour. In Egypt, elections brought in a Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, who behaved autocratically, until he was overthrown by the army with the support of a large portion of Egypt’s population.
In Libya and Syria, dictators provoked civil wars to protect themselves against protests, assuming that the chaos would allow them to use overwhelming force. This appears to be working in Syria, but failed in Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi was defeated thanks to western military intervention. For outside observers, however, these wars, driven primarily by sectarianism and tribalism, only confirmed their doubts about the possibility of Arab democracy.
And yet, to relinquish the democracy card would be a mistake for the United States, for it would mean surrendering a powerful foreign policy instrument as well as an essential aspect of America’s identity. The latter may seem paradoxical, with Americans often ambiguous about spreading democracy abroad. Yet they will also embrace American exceptionalism, of which democracy has become a key part.
Americans are also profoundly uneasy when their nation remains aloof toward democratisation. Any administration that pursues national interests with no concern for human rights and democratic values usually opens itself to criticism far more than one seeking to promote democracy and humanistic principles. Not many Americans would welcome someone like Vladimir Putin in the White House.
At the same time, as administrations since the Second World War have realised, the support for democracy will usually be inconsistent, depending on circumstances. Recently, the Obama administration alienated the Egyptian army by pushing for democratic change in Egypt, when it had not done so previously. The ensuing loss of influence in Cairo earned Mr Obama much criticism. Perhaps that was because he has systematically failed to integrate democracy and human rights into his foreign policy agenda, and so he was not taken seriously when he did.
It’s better to be inconsistent against a backdrop of outspoken support for democracy, than it is to promote democracy when the American message is that self-interest now guides American foreign policy decisions.
Mr Obama had the same problem when he tried to rally support for military action against Bashar Al Assad’s regime after it used chemical weapons against civilians last August. For over two years, Mr Obama had ignored the mass slaughter taking place in Syria, before he reversed himself and said that the US had to intervene militarily to prevent more such outrages.
The American public, to whom the president had spent two years describing the Syrian conflict as “someone else’s civil war”, failed to understand why Syria had suddenly become America’s problem. This was surely callous on its part, but it was also a reflection of the contradictory statements emanating from the administration.
The Arab uprisings provided an opportunity the United States should have exploited, as the world’s leading democratic power, to expand its influence in the Middle East. But after siding with the uprisings, the Obama administration failed to engage in a sustained effort to stabilise their aftermaths. Nor did the president commit personally to such a project, insisting instead that the US had other priorities.
Despite its purported realism, the White House did not see that its interests are to be taken seriously, particularly on a value-based issue such as democracy. Instead, the Obama administration is viewed as being neither here nor there – the worst place for it to be.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut
On Twitter: @BeirutCalling