WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s handling of the so-called Arab Spring is likely to crop up when he debates foreign policy Monday night with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But what the United States could have done differently as longtime allies were knocked from power in one country after another is far from clear, foreign policy analysts say.
The rise of conservative Islamists in countries once considered staunch U.S. allies undoubtedly undercut American interests in the region, the analysts agree. The United States, however, could have done little to stop those revolts, and the long-term impact of the changes is still unclear.
What is clear, the experts say, is that whoever serves the next four years as president must realize that there’s no appetite for the United States’ old paternalistic stance toward Arab nations; new leaders demand a more respectful and balanced relationship similar to what Turkey or European nations enjoy.
“One thing that has sunken in is that American leverage is limited,” said Nathan Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University who’s written extensively about the Arab transitions, with a focus on Egypt. “So many Arab societies have turned inward, so the priorities are inherently domestic.”
Democrats defend the administration’s support of Arab protests as the United States being on “the right side of history,” describing the current instability and rise in extremist attacks as only temporary setbacks. Romney’s campaign, meanwhile, has said that the president’s foreign policy is “unraveling,” with the harshest jabs reserved for the administration’s handling of the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts in Libya.
Away from the hyperbole on both sides, foreign policy analysts offer a more dispassionate assessment of how Arab revolts quickly outpaced U.S. maneuvering, leaving the administration with few choices but to offer support to the untested revolutionary movements.
“It hasn’t been particularly successful, but I’m not sure another policy would’ve had any different outcome,” Brown said.
More than a year after revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya espoused quintessential American values of freedom and democracy, those nations are now largely steered by conservative Islamists with less-than-friendly positions toward the United States or fragile transitional governments that struggle against extremist spoilers.
In each case, analysts said, American influence has been greatly diminished as young governments try to assert their sovereignty and project independence from Western backers – key elements to their own popularity at home.
There were high-stakes moments in each revolt in which the Obama administration had to pick sides, and in all but the failed uprising in Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet is based, the United States allied itself with Arab protesters, although the endorsement came faster in some places than in others because of political sensitivities.
One place where support came very quickly was Syria, with the memorable scene of then-Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford taking a risky – critics say provocative – ride into the flashpoint city of Hama, where protesters greeted him with flowers. The embattled regime of President Bashar Assad called it meddling.
That scene unfolded 15 months ago, long before the Syrian death toll was in the tens of thousands. As the conflict grinds on and Syrian public opinion of the United States sours, according to news reports, the Obama administration appears hamstrung.
The loose weapons, outlaw militias and extremist organizing in Libya offers a cautionary tale in arming rebel movements or leading a foreign military intervention. The elections in Tunisia and Egypt that swept the Muslim Brotherhood to power similarly give pause as the United States determines whom to back among the Syrian opposition.
Facing such grim options, Obama and Romney offer similar plans for the U.S. role in the Syrian crisis: continue nonlethal and humanitarian assistance, lean on opposition forces to form a transitional government, weaken the regime through sanctions and allow Arab allies to arm the rebels.
Neither campaign speaks about the United States directly arming the rebels now; that move is deemed too risky because of the proliferation of Islamist extremists among opposition fighters. Romney has said the U.S. should identify fighters who “share our values.”
The lack of a commitment to military intervention – such as a no-fly zone or airstrikes, but not foreign boots on Syrian soil – is maddening to pro-intervention Syrian opposition figures such as Ammar Abdulhamid, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington research center.
While Abdulhamid said the Obama administration’s involvement in the Arab protests was “overall a positive one,” Syria is “a nightmare scenario” that was facilitated by government officials’ “lack of resolve, leadership and vision.” Syria, he and other activists say, could end up as a stain on the administration’s otherwise sensible response to the Arab uprisings.
“If they make it through this coming election, I just hope they have plans to give this tragedy the time and resources it requires to be brought to resolution in a manner commensurate with the aspirations of the pro-democracy activists who started this whole thing and were, in effect, betrayed,” Abdulhamid said.
Egypt is another key laboratory for U.S. policy.
After some wavering in the beginning, the Obama administration sided with the protesters who turned downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square into an international symbol of the Arab protest movements. But Egyptians, who promptly voted the conservative Muslim Brotherhood to power, clearly haven’t forgiven the United States for backing autocrat Hosni Mubarak for nearly three decades.
Protesters lobbed tomatoes and insults at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a recent visit, and polls show that a majority of Egyptians reject financial aid from the U.S. government – a dramatic shift for a country that successive administrations viewed as the United States’ most reliable Arab ally.
“Egypt is no longer the president,” said Brown, the GWU professor, on how the U.S. must now perceive the country. “It’s a state with institutions, and they’re going to deal with the Parliament, the military and the Cabinet.”
The United States already has run afoul of those branches. Egypt last year prosecuted U.S. and other Western nongovernmental organizations, mostly pro-democracy nonprofits, on charges related to illegally funding local activists. Some analysts say the Obama administration was partly to blame for the debacle by rushing to bolster secular and moderate groups as a counterweight to the powerful – and deep-pocketed – Islamist blocs that ascended after Mubarak’s fall.
In June 2011, a report from the Gallup polling group advised that it was too soon then to push pro-democracy funding in Egypt, advising that it was too sensitive an issue and would backfire.
“That’s exactly what happened,” said Dalia Mogahed, director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. “It was way too much, too soon, to pour money into such a volatile situation where people were already very suspicious.”
Angry over the NGO trial and alarmed at the political dominance of Islamist factions, some U.S. lawmakers advocate cutting U.S. foreign aid to Egypt or at least adding conditions such as abiding by the Camp David peace treaty with Israel or protecting Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. For years, the U.S. has given Egypt a nearly $2 billion annual aid package, the second-highest recipient of U.S. largesse after Israel.
That tactic, analysts say, feels dated now, and the next administration will have to draft a whole new playbook for Egypt and the rest of the region.
The old arrangement of the United States “buying peace” with foreign aid, analysts say, ignores a new political order in the Middle East that is suspicious of foreign aid and seeks a relationship with their American counterparts based on “mutual interests,” as the Muslim Brotherhood is fond of saying
“They won’t be bribed anymore,” said Michael Hanna, an Egypt specialist at the Century Foundation, a research center in New York. “Egyptians will support Camp David because they’ve decided it’s in Egypt’s national interest to do so.”
In a particularly bitter irony for the Obama administration, Libya, the Arab nation where U.S. popularity was highest, is now its Achilles heel on foreign policy. It was just this spring that a Gallup poll found that 54 percent of Libyans approved of U.S. leadership – the highest rating of any Arab country and higher than even Canada’s. They were also open to U.S. aid and U.S. help in building a civil society – assistance that many other nations view with suspicion.
A few months, later, the death of the U.S. ambassador in the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. posts only shined a light on the worst of Libya since the fall of longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi: weak central government, little in the way of law enforcement, and wide-open space for jihadists to plot and carry out attacks.
Even the growing conflict in neighboring Mali, where militant Islamists have imposed a merciless brand of Islamic law in part of the country, is seen as an offshoot of the instability in Libya. The militants’ takeover of northern Mali was helped in large part by weapons looted from Gadhafi’s abandoned arsenals.
As much as the Obama administration, in damage-control mode, would like move beyond the topic of Libya, analysts say, North Africa remains a powder keg that could explode anew and force the next president into yet another redrafting of foreign policy on the fly.
“Libya is not even post-civil war. It’s a war zone, and it’s really a lot closer to Iraq than to Egypt,” Mogahed said. “It’s zero capacity, and the government is starting from scratch. There’s no boat – they’re building a raft. We have to think of it as a war zone and deal with it as a war zone.”