Scarcely a day goes by without reports of another Arab country in open rebellion against its leaders. A narrative has emerged which says that Obama has been entirely too passive in the face of this momentous opportunity to encourage democracy in the Middle East. Other commentators have accused Obama as being typically weak-kneed. However, this criticism is unfair, at least to a large extent.
Most outside observers wish to see these countries develop into democracies. Yet, America becoming visibly associated with Democratic protest movements in the Middle East at a time when America is unpopular in that region is not the best policy. Indeed, America is not much more popular there than it was during the Bush administration. A majority of Arabs are discouraged about American policy in the region, and a majority thinks a nuclear Iran would be a good thing.
President Obama had a few options here, all of which had their own shortcomings. First, he could have spoken out strongly in favor of protests at the outset. But as I have already demonstrated, he would conflated democratic protesters with an unpopular American government in the region and very likely hurt the protesters in the eyes of Arabs sitting on the fence.
More importantly, speaking out strongly and demanding that leaders step down without concrete actions would arguably have made the US look weak. Many observers would then say that when the US says a leader should step down, it will not back its demands up. As it happens, Obama has taken concrete measures. He has imposed sanctions on Gadhafi.
Second, Obama could have sent in American troops to topple regimes to insure a democratic transition. But it would not be enough simply to deploy soldiers to dislodge the dictators. The US would need a plan for the aftermath. Occupations, unless they are exceptionally short, are never simple. The US would need a plan to build up basic infrastructure and institutions and fight terrorists so a new government can inherit a reasonably stable situation. That could well take years and a substantial investment of money and resources. Do fiscal conservatives really want to spend money on overseas adventures? Would it be prudent when the US is already fighting in Afghanistan?
This all ignores the most important question of all: is a democracy in the Middle East in our interests? Interestingly, several conservative critics of the administration have concluded that it is not, at least not at present. Dick Cheney for example believes that the US should have stood by Hosni Mubark in Egypt. Thomas Sowell is also skeptical of democracy in the Middle East, writing:
The fact that Egyptians or others in the Middle East and elsewhere want freedom does not mean that they are ready for freedom. Everyone wants freedom for himself. Even the Nazis wanted to be free to be Nazis. They just didn't want anybody else to be free.
There is very little sign of tolerance in the Middle East, even among fellow Muslims with different political or religious views, and all too many signs of gross intolerance toward people who are not Muslims.
Freedom and democracy cannot be simply conferred on anyone. Both have preconditions, and even nations that are free and democratic today took centuries to get there.
It is possible to see how democracies in these countries could be hostile to US interests. Since so many Arabs have negative views of the US, any elected leadership would have to echo these sentiments, at least to some extent. This could mean fewer basing rights in Arab countries for US soldiers or less help fighting terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. It could also mean that regimes that tacitly tolerated Israel will have to become virulently anti-Israel in their policies to satisfy a public that disdains Israel and Jews in general all too often.
Perhaps the US would benefit from being seen to support a move to democracy. Arabs might feel as if the US is working to protect their human rights and dignity and as a result form governments friendly to American interests. However that is at all clear. The right course of action now is hard to discern amid so many options and possibilities. If President Obama has vacillated during the uprisings, it is because there was so much to consider.