Friday, 11 March 2011

Obama and Rebellious Arabs

Someone in the White House has been speaking to the big US newspapers, trying to persuade them that President Obama has a strategy for reconciling support for Arab democrats and saving Arab autocrats who have worked for US interests for decades. The Wall Street Journal says the Middle East strategy he has settled on is "(to) help keep longtime allies who are willing to reform in power, even if that means the full democratic demands of their newly emboldened citizens might have to wait." The New York Times version says: "President Obama has adopted a policy of restraint. He has concluded that his administration must shape its response country by country, aides say, recognizing a stark reality that American national security interests weigh as heavily as idealistic impulses." Both stories distort the reality of the way Obama handled the popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. "The more cautious approach contrasts sharply with Mr. Obama’s response in North Africa, where he abandoned a 30-year alliance with Hosni Mubarak," said the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal says Obama "pushed for immediate regime change in Egypt" and adds: "The (new) strategy also comes in the face of domestic U.S. criticism that the administration sent mixed messages at first in Egypt, tentatively backing Mr. Mubarak before deciding to throw its full support behind the protesters demanding his ouster." I fail to see what's new in the new strategy. My recollection is that in the Egyptian case the United States did its best to save the regime, right up to the last hours, by favouring a transfer of power to short-lived Vice President Omar Suleiman, who was a dependable clone of Mubarak and would probably have perpetuated exactly the same police state and the same collaboration with Israel as Mubarak himself enforced for decades. In the end Mubarak gave up power because hundreds of thousands of Egyptians refused to leave the streets and the Egyptian army decided he was no longer able to govern the country. Obama's views were very much a minor consideration in a domestic drama. Shaping policy country by country has always been a bedrock principle of US foreign policy, anyway. "We do not have a cookie-cutter approach to policy" is one of the favourite expressions of US State Department spokespeople.  As I wrote during the Egyptian uprising, Obama's policy at any given juncture in any given Arab country depends on Washington's assessment of the chances that the Arab ruler will lose power and on its assessment of what threat that poses to US interests. If the White House thinks its Arab autocrat has a chance to pull off a 'reform' stunt (promise reform to win time, without any sincere intention of following through, as Mubarak did in 2005), Washington will go along with him. Once the White House knows the Arab autocrat has played his last card and failed, Obama will jump ship and start to woo his successors, in the hope of salvaging what he can for US interests. In the case of Libya, principle plays no part in US restraint: the United States has no compelling reason to save Muammar Gaddafi, despite his cooperative behaviour in recent years, but on the other hand it sees many risks in military intervention on behalf of the rebels. For the moment the White House thinks the Khalifa family in Bahrain has a chance of surviving, so it supports its 'reform' agenda. If the protests grow and the Khalifas look likely to fall, it will soon change tack. Even if the Saudi army intervenes to save the Khalifas, the White House will gauge its response, again, to its assessment that the Saudi intervention will succeed. There's nothing very reprehensible about that: Obama's making the best of the hand he inherited from years of misguided US policy in the Middle East. But the influence of the United States is severely limited in all of these countries, when the people in the streets have their eyes on freedom and the rulers have visions of exile, humiliation or worse. They are playing for much higher stakes. As the Wall Street Journal puts it: "Officials said the administration's response in Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere could change if people take to the streets en masse, rejecting offers made at the negotiating table, or if the U.S.-backed governments crack down violently."      

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