The Obama administration has ineptly fumbled its way through what we have come to call the Arab Spring. Initially, the White House had little or no idea that this would be a regional awakening, as opposed to an isolated incident in Tunisia. Then, Washington quickly became focused on Egypt but dithered ever so badly, sending Frank Wisner, an impressive, highly accomplished envoy with close ties to Mubarak, who famously contradicted what the White House was saying. Clearly the administration did not know where it wanted to go. It vacillated between admonitions against the use of excessive force and insistence on reform for the Mubarak regime, yet eventually backed the protestors and called for Mubarak to step down. It was amateur hour, with little vision of what lay beyond Tahrir Square. Egypt was largely assessed in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with little appreciation of its position in the broader Arab and Muslim world. The administration’s response to demonstrations in Yemen showed the very same lack of understanding. The protests were seen narrowly in the context of what they meant for the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and for Saudi Arabia. The reaction to the uprising in Libya at first appeared to be less problematic. Qaddafi was an unfriendly dictator. Although France pushed the hardest at the United Nations, the United States initially took the lead in the UN-authorized military intervention, but quickly and timidly receded into the background for fear it might be perceived as fighting in too many Muslim countries. There seemed to be little agreement as to how different levels of force and pressure would affect Qaddafi who, sensing limited onslaught, has dug in his heels and appears to be fighting for a part of Libya. Despite dubbing the Libyan Transitional National Council a “legitimate and credible interlocutor of the Libyan people,” the White House refused to grant the rebel-led council official recognition last week.
The U.S. response to Bahrain most vividly confirms that this administration is still wedded to the past and has no vision for the future. The Bahraini authorities, under Saudi pressure and with the support of the Saudi military, have ruthlessly crushed peaceful protesters who are, for the most part, Shia. Saudi interference of this sort can only fuel sectarian violence. And that might well plague the region for many years. Yet the White House has been virtually mute. Can it really only be because the al-Sauds wish it so? Is Washington indifferent to the implications of sectarian conflict for the future of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East?
The harsh treatment of peaceful protestors in Syria is a further instance of pitiless contempt for basic human rights, but here again Washington holds its tongue. While tanks and bombs are killing hundreds of innocent protestors in the streets of Daraa and security forces shut off water and electricity and slaughter citizens in their homes in Baniyas, the White House sticks to a timid and tragic “nuanced” approach—condemning the use of force and adopting useless sanctions. No harsh criticism is voiced against Bashar al-Assad. No support is expressed for the people of Syria. Why? Because the White House says it wants to leave the door open to negotiations with Assad. Surely the more likely answer is that Israel does not relish instability in its neighborhood and prefers the devil it already knows to whomever might replace him. Is Washington connecting any dots? Does the administration actually ponder Assad’s close connection to Iran and what his demise might portend for the mullahs, for Hezbollah or for Hamas?
Protests in Saudi Arabia? The administration does not utter a word. Scattered evidence of dissent in Jordan and Morocco? No attention paid there either. Jordan and Morocco, nowhere near the Persian Gulf, have reportedly requested membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council—unquestionably a smart move for these two monarchies after observing the Obama administration’s special treatment of the GCC. Will the United States now support the gang of eight monarchies no matter what they do to their people and the region?
Is there a U.S. policy to be found under this heap? Or are the administration’s reactions nothing more than a modified continuation of U.S. support for its favorite dictators in the name of stability and the fight against extremism? Has U.S. Mideast policy been subcontracted to Saudi Arabia, to the rest of the GCC or to Israel? The future of the Middle East will be determined by protest and by dramatic change. It is Washington’s policy toward this change that will decide whether the people of the region hold us in contempt or as allies. Ultimately, will the United States block the way to a better future, or will it become a partner for change?
The Obama administration needs: (i) a vision for the region’s future, (ii) an appreciation of the important considerations along the way and (iii) a clear approach to getting there.
The vision that most countries in the region would readily embrace is straightforward: they need representative rule, reduced military expenditures, better social and economic policies, a heavy dose of economic and social justice and foreign support—not interference—to help achieve these goals. Such a vision should be adopted by the United States, as it is compatible with long-term interest in ensuring growing energy development and supplies and a market for U.S. goods and services.
The most important consideration in the region is the commitment to Islam as laid down in the Quran and practiced by the prophet Mohammad. The United States and other outside powers should not confuse this with the practice of the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia or of the mullahs in Iran. The essence of Islam is social and economic justice and the unity of mankind. This is the Islam that Washington should support. The Islam of hate, division and injustice taught by corrupt clerics is the Islam that it should fear. For as long as the al-Sauds run Saudi Arabia in the way that they have, they will finance madrassas where extremism is nurtured and division sown. The longer the United States blindly supports the al-Sauds, the longer it will be stuck in the past and unable to support the region’s vision of the future. Osama bin Laden is dead but the policies that nurtured him and his followers are alive and well in Saudi Arabia. Implicit in this consideration is another that the United States must face: The absolute rulers in the region are unlikely to change their ways. They are wedded to the past and will not surrender any of their privileges. These rulers will oppose any forward-looking vision that President Obama might embrace. Another important consideration is the growing division, especially in the Persian Gulf, between Sunni and Shia Muslims. A number of countries—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and the United States, among others— knowingly and unknowingly, are contributing to a widening rift that could fuel the bloodiest conflict ever seen in the region. Its growth must be arrested if the region is to stand a chance for a better future.
How should the United States go about supporting and implementing the region’s vision for itself? Washington cannot subcontract its foreign policy to any country in the Middle East. It should reduce, if not eliminate, its hypocritical practices in the region: Syrian, Bahraini and Saudi lives are as important as Egyptian or Libyan ones; Washington must condemn atrocities in these countries the same as it does those in Egypt, Libya and Iran. The United States cannot profess peace, change and economic progress while selling billions of dollars in armament to tyrants in the region and castigating their corruption only when they are about to be deposed. Duplicitous acts will only sully the U.S. image in the Muslim world.