Guest post by Eugenio Lilli, a postgraduate researcher at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London and a teaching fellow at the UK’s Joint Services Command and Staff College.
I am well aware that defining the Obama administration’s response to the Arab Awakening a failure may seem a very harsh criticism, especially from someone like me who has a profound respect for the president of the United States, Barack Obama. This said, if someone takes a look at the Arab world today there are good reasons to be seriously concerned. In this article, I examine the cases of Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen but not the one of Tunisia where US involvement in the country’s uprising was at best negligible.
In Egypt the Obama administration publicly called on President Hosni Mubarak, a long-time US ally, to resign. President Obama took such a decision only when it was clear, by observing Egyptian domestic dynamics, that the only perceived way at the time to restore stability in Egypt was through the ouster of Mubarak. Nevertheless, changes in the Egyptian leadership did not significantly alter US policy toward the country. Such a policy was grounded on the time-honored principle of “US aid for regional stability.” According to this principle, as long as Egyptian leaders demonstrate a general moderation in foreign policy and a specific commitment to the peace treaty with Israel, the United States will not be too critical of Egypt’s domestic democratic records. This was true during the rule of Mubarak and then of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and it is still true under President Morsi. In fact, the Islamists currently in power in Egypt have shown at best a dubious commitment to democratic values. In cases of violations of democratic rules and behaviors, such as the beating of demonstrators protesting a controversial November 2012 decree or the contentious draft and approval of the new Egyptian constitution in December 2012, the US administration has been mildly quiet. In addition to the concern about an uncertain commitment to democracy, some people in Washington are also extremely wary about the Brotherhood’s long term commitment to the peace treaty with Israel.
In Libya the United States took part in the UN-sanctioned military intervention that helped the Libyan rebels to oust Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Although it has often been described as “leading from behind,” the US role in the intervention was indispensable to achieve the objectives of civilians’ protection and regime change. The main problem is that after Colonel Qaddafi was killed and the National Transitional Council took power in October 2011, the United States was quick to reduce its involvement to a minimum, effectively leaving the Libyans alone to deal with the mess that ensued. Since then more than a year has passed and Libya still lacks an effective central government, armed militias control most of the country, and radical Islamists have reportedly exploited the power vacuum that followed the fall of Qaddafi to destabilize both Libya and neighboring countries such as Mali and Algeria.
In Syria so far the United States has given political and economic support to the Syrian opposition but it has stopped short of providing military support. By taking such measures, the Obama administration has given the rebels enough to continue the fighting but not enough to achieve decisive victory. Prolonging the conflict has had a series of unintended consequences. Firstly, tens of thousands of people have been killed, internally displaced or made flee the country. Secondly, the Syrian opposition has been radicalized with extremist Islamist groups gaining more power and influence to the detriment of more moderate groups. If one day the Bashar al-Assad regime is overthrown there is the very real risk that radical groups may either directly seize power or hinder the effort to reestablish a stable and functioning government, thus resulting in the creation of another Iraq or even worse, another Somalia on Israel’s doorstep.
In Bahrain, given the US strong strategic interests in the country and the steadfast Saudi commitment to stop any significant process of reform empowering the Shiite community, the Obama administration, after an initial failed attempt to broker a political solution to the crisis, has mainly limited its involvement to mild criticism toward the Bahraini ruling family. The US position has had a double negative effect. On the one hand, it has antagonized the Bahraini opposition that has accused the United States of hypocrisy for supporting democratic protests in other countries but not in the Kingdom of Bahrain. On the other hand, US position has antagonized the hardliners within the ruling al-Khalifa family. Such hardliners, that now seem to be in charge of Bahraini politics, have not accepted even the kind of mild criticism expressed by Washington and have felt betrayed. This all comes at a time that a decisive end to the almost daily clashes between demonstrators and security forces is not foreseeable in the near future.
In Yemen, the United States supported a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plan for political transition. The GCC plan called on President Saleh to resign and to be replaced by vice-President Hadi. The situation in Yemen was dire before the uprising and it has not yet improved. Today, the central government is weak, there is an armed insurrection in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, the presence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula still represents a serious challenge, and the socio-economic conditions of the Yemeni people are desperate. Indeed, Yemen is not far from becoming a failed state. Given Yemen’s strategic location near the world’s principal oil fields and sea lanes, such a development would pose a significant threat to US interests in the region. The Obama administration has shown little interest in improving such an admittedly difficult situation in Yemen; whereas, the administration has focused most of its efforts on counterterrorism operations.
It would be certainly unfair to blame the Obama administration for all the problems that are affecting these Arab countries insofar as the United States had not enough resources and leverage to determine the exact outcome of each of such uprisings. However, it is fair to say that one would have expected more from a president who promised to set a new beginning in US-Muslim relations during his renowned Cairo speech in June 2009.