Saturday, March 5, 2011

Obama and the Middle East Protests


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.

1 comment:

  1. Back in the 1950’s, many of us found ourselves gawking at a new invention called television. There was one show that came on everyday at 4:00 P.M. Buffalo Bob was the master of ceremonies and his sidekick was a mute clown named Clarabelle who communicated with a honker horn. There was also the “peanut gallery” which was a set of bleachers occupied by a group of preschoolers cheering every time Clarabelle honked his horn. The star of the show, however, was a marionette named Howdy Doody. The way it worked was that Howdy Doody spoke to the television audience while Buffalo Bob lead the cheering section in the peanut gallery. Every time H.D. finished making a point, Buffalo Bob would say “Isn’t that right boys and girls of the peanut gallery?” Clarabelle would then honk his horn twice and the studio kids would shout “Yay!” Of course, we never found out who was pulling the strings. Let’s see; a speech making puppet with a cowboy and a clown leading a programmed cheering section; sounds a lot like modern-day politics.

    Accordingly, as I have watched the events unfold vis-à-vis the “war on terror”, and the “road map to peace”, I feel like I’m still watching the Howdy Doody Show. In Gaza, Hamas had taken control of the Palestinian Authority by popular vote. Then the U.S. government continued to push Israel to travel down “peace road” with the leaders of Hamas because they had become the elected officials of the “Palestinians”. The PLO has been gone for about five years and Hamas is still in power; American style democracy in action with Jimmy Carter still heralding his approval and Obama still promising to work harder toward bringing peace between the Jews and the Arabs in the Middle East.

    Wait a minute! Aren’t the Hamas terrorists the ones who perpetrated all of the suicide bombings in Israel and murdered thousands of Jews? Yes. Didn’t the Israeli military take out several successive leaders of Hamas with Helicopter attacks without protest from the puppeteers? Yes. Didn’t the prior Bush administration and the current Obama administration condemn Hamas for its acts of terror? Yes. And now the world community is still congratulating Hamas for its participation in the peaceful political process and condemning Israel for defending herself.

    I feel like I’m still going insane. But it must be alright, because Howdy Doody says that everything is as it should be, the buffalo man is prompting us for agreement and the dumb clown just gave us two blasts on his honker horn.

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