When Will the Arab Awakening Wake Up Washington?
April 25, 2011
Three months after the January 25
Revolution in Egypt, President Obama's approach to the Middle East is
hopelessly adrift. He is hesitant to truly embrace the Arab freedom movements,
failing to lead Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and lacking effective
diplomacy to counter Iran's nuclear ambitions. Two years after his ballyhooed
Cairo University reach-out to the Arab and Muslim worlds, it's clear now that
he actually doesn't get it.
We're told that Obama intends to speak
again very soon about his Middle East policies. What is needed is something
that he is unlikely to deliver, especially as a politician already launching
his campaign for re-election in 2012: a long-overdue revolution in America's
Middle East policies, a fitting and needed response to the revolutionary change
sweeping the region.
At the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in
Washington this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a glimpse into
the administration's mindset. Her talk was reactive, uninspired. It largely
consisted of warnings and worries: Can Arabs achieve political and social
change? Can they reform economies that are dependent on oil and stunted by
corruption? Will they respect women and minorities? Will the vacuum be filled
by extremists? Essentially she was asking: Are Arabs ready for democracy?
That is the type of tired American
thinking that enabled successive U.S. administrations to support Arab dictators
and disregard the hopes and aspirations of the Arab people. And conspicuously
absent from Clinton's speech were any of the hard questions that the Obama
administration should be asking itself: Why have America's policies failed so
miserably, and for so long, in the Middle East? Why do nine out of 10 Egyptians
disapprove of Obama's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, a bellwether
of Muslim attitudes toward the U.S.? What innovations in Middle East policies
should be considered now, in light of the new realities?
In the Spring 2011 issue of the Cairo
Review of Global Affairs, a new quarterly journal that I am editing at the
American University in Cairo, articles by Shadi Hamid and William B. Quandt
raise such questions and provide some answers.
In "The Struggle for Middle East
Democracy," Hamid describes how "America's staunch support
of repressive regimes, and its unwillingness to back pro-democracy movements,
helps explain why the Arab world -- until January 2011 -- seemed immune to
democratic change." Such policies, explains Hamid, a fellow at the
Brookings Institution, led to the "general sense that the West had
blocked, sometimes purposefully, the natural development of an entire people
and region." It was in the absence of crucial international support, Hamid
writes, that Arabs dramatically took matters into their own hands and expelled
dictators from power -- thus far, in Tunisia and Egypt.
In "The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Now," Quandt details the missteps that explain why despite
lofty initial statements that raised expectations of a new and active U.S.
peace policy, "Obama has little to show for his first two years of
Arab-Israeli diplomacy." An advisor in the Carter White House who was
active in the successful Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations in the late 1970s,
Quandt writes that Obama has failed to embrace the necessity of forceful
American diplomacy in an existential dispute where the two parties are
incapable of successful direct negotiations. Moreover, Quandt says that Obama
has mismanaged the task by failing to assign a primary diplomat on Arab-Israeli
affairs and allowing too much confusion to reign among his policy advisors.
Quandt outlines how Obama has clumsily failed in his dealings with hard-line
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Obama's demand for a West Bank
Hamid and Quandt agree that the Arab
uprisings, as Quandt puts it, "should lead to a fundamental recalibration
of American policies in the Middle East." Hamid observes how
"America's unwillingness to align itself with democratic forces was not,
it seemed, a matter of one president over another, but a structural problem
inherent in U.S. foreign policy." Quandt argues that while some may
conclude that this is not the right time to push for Arab-Israeli peace, the
uprisings actually "make it all the more important that the U.S. aligns
itself with both democracy and peace in a vital part of the world."
Those are wise words that Obama should
take to heart. The risk is that this emerging Arab generation will conclude
that the chasm with the West simply cannot be bridged. That, in turn, could
introduce a new era of strained relations and anti-Americanism, an unnecessary
and avoidable outcome. Until now, America's policies have been rooted in the
past, when the U.S. aligned itself with Arab autocrats in the Cold War
struggle. This became a useful strategic arrangement that advanced America's
perceived interests -- oil exports, security for Israel and opposition to
But the dictators are falling. Arab
regimes rested on untenable foundations. That is why it took a mere 18 days of
protests to send Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak scurrying from power, a ruler
who had held office for 30 years and became American's closest strategic
partner in the Arab world. The revolutionary change now needed must rest on the
establishment of solid, respectful and lasting relations with the people of the
Middle East and through their democratically elected governments.
To accomplish this, it is imperative that
Obama live up to his words of supporting freedom, dignity and opportunity for
the people of the region. No longer can it just be empty talk. The U.S. must
hold remaining Arab autocrats and transitional structures to account. It should
cease all practices that directly or indirectly assist Arab rulers in the
suppression of their people. Israel, too, should be held to the standard; the
U.S. must end its limitless tolerance for Israeli violations of international
norms, and forcefully promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that
provides freedom, dignity and opportunity -- and justice -- to the Palestinian
Because the Beltway "Middle East
experts" are themselves stuck in the past, promoting failed policies in
one administration after another, it will probably require new experts with
fresh outlooks to develop the new policies. Clinton should have gotten that
message loud and clear when she visited Cairo after the Tahrir revolution and
was embarrassingly snubbed by the same youth
leaders that Obama had compared (note: only after Mubarak was toppled) to
Gandhi and King. The January 25 Revolution Youth Coalition refused to meet with
the American secretary of state because of Washington's longstanding support of
Mubarak and because of Obama's hesitancy to embrace the Egyptian democratic uprising
that would leave 846 protesters dead.
Truly upholding American values will bring honor and strength to
U.S. relations with the Middle East. In the immediate term, it will provide
sustenance to those who are struggling to achieve a democratic and peaceful
future for the region. As Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Essam El-Erian told the
Cairo Review 10 days after the fall of Mubarak: "We can be friends, the
people of America, people of Egypt, Arab people, Muslims. This is a moment of
truth. I hope we can discover ourselves, all of us."
originally appeared in the Huffington Post.)
Scott MacLeod is
managing editor of the Cairo
Review of Global Affairs and is a professor in the School of Global Affairs
and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.