Commentary by Takuya Matsuda – 25 September 2011
Amid the political upheaval in the Middle East, the Obama administration has come under heavy criticism for what many analysts and activists describe as a government with no coherent policy in the region. Others have claimed that Obama is little more than an opportunist who changes his stances in accordance with the evolution of particular situations, rather than basing his policy on democratic and just principles. During the protests in Egypt, he initially proposed an “orderly transition” and urged Mubarak to step down later, only after it became apparent that the military was not going to intervene on its own account. His intervention in Libya happened under considerable international and media pressure. Inaction in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, where equally barbaric crackdowns have and continue to occur, raises questions as to whether international and media pressure constituted the paramount reason behind American and Western intervention in Libya. Barack Obama, if judged on the last nine months of his policy, appears to have no tangible stance on the events of the “Arab Spring”. Notwithstanding short-term considerations, if such a judgment were to be postponed after the possible consequences of the current developments of the Middle East, only then does Obama’s policy acquire new meaning.
Symbolically, the “Arab Spring” constitutes a significant and historic event as it has changed the world’s perception of the Middle East, where repressive authoritarian regimes had until now determined much of the way the region’s inhabitants were viewed. Much of the world sincerely believed that the people of the MENA region were naturally submitted to the authority of their leaders. It was an unbelievable event that marks the beginning of an era where Arabs and non-Arabs in the region are finally attaining the right to “self-determination”, something they have longed for since the end of the First World War. As the political landscape of the region changes, a new paradigm shift is occurring. As President Obama put it months after the fall of Ben Ali, these events were little less than “a moment of opportunity”. But optimism is already fading away.
In Egypt, people are dissatisfied with the “interim regime”, since no apparent improvement in their lives is visible. The slow pace of change is making the people of the Arab world frustrated. Moreover, the “Arab Spring” may very well begin unraveling the “order” that somehow kept the Middle East stable for the past few decades. International relations of the West in the MENA region aimed to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War and then shifted to also contain Iran after 1979. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West’s policy aimed to contain Iran’s increasing influence in the region; an influence marked most notably by Iran’s nuclear ambitions that are perceived to pose serious security concerns to its neighbors.
While everyone was worrying about the collapse of the “balance of power” in the region with the fear that Iran were acquiring a bomb, the “Arab Spring” is already breaking the balance, albeit with other results, making the future of the Middle East increasingly uncertain. Even the Assad regime in Syria that was regarded as an anti-US and anti-Israel advocate, seemed to have contributed to the maintenance of stability up until now. On Naqba Day of this year, Syria hoped to send a strong message to the West by allowing Palestinian activists and refugees to enter the Golan Heights. This had never happened under the Assad regime and it implies that the fall of Bashar may have serious consequences for Israel. The “stable” order in the Middle East that was taken for granted by the West is starting to falter, and is now revealing its limits.
The politics of liberalism that emphasized values and ideals when conducting diplomacy also appear to be failing, as the example of the Bush administration’s policy in the 2000s has shown. The US was once highly regarded in the Middle East when European powers were colonizing the third world, as a result of the work of missionaries that spread American values and Wilson’s fourteen points policy that regarded “self-determination” as a universal right. The US was seen as an alternative to Europe and, to a certain extent, a certain hope of the Arab world. But the paternalistic nature of U.S. foreign policy, led America to meddle in the internal affairs of Middle Eastern countries, especially Iran. 2011 marks a point where America’s foreign policy is finally backfiring.
The most important and also the trickiest part of foreign policy is how to strike a balance between realism and liberalism when conducting diplomacy. I find President Obama to be an expert in this domain. He knows the importance of maintaining stability based on the “balance of power”, especially with the Iranian dilemma looming about. He also understands that being persistent on the status quo will alienate the US from the Arab people and hurt America’s interest in the long run. Obama’s carefully calculated moves when facing Arab upheaval are difficult to understand since the President may not actually have a straightforward strategy. His approach is pragmatic, and aims to deal with issues as they come.
Mr. Obama’s speech in May praised the people’s movement and called it a “moment of opportunity” for the people of the Arab world to gain their right to “self-determination”. He understood what the upheaval meant and in order to support them, he offered financial aid to Tunisia and Egypt. His statement to make the 1967 line as the base of Palestinian peace negotiations reflected both realism and liberalism. In terms of realism, the “Arab Spring” will bring serious security issues to Israel and would, at some point, convince the Jewish State that they would have to make peace with Arab states if they wish to survival. In terms of liberalism, it was a gesture that the US will support the Arab people’s pursuit of “self-determination”.
Mr. Obama seems to understand what he is doing, but the problem is that the future of the Middle East is uncertain and is unpredictable for anyone. Many in the West are suffering from a dilemma between hope and despair as they observe the unfolding events of the Middle East. The problem is that individuals have taken the “stable order” for granted while neglecting the nefarious side effects of this “stability”. Economic stagnation and the Palestinian question have been present for a long time, but there were few attempts to find solutions to either problem.
Mahmoud Abbas’s attempt to go for a UN bid also shows how the peace negotiations are in a gridlock. The Palestinian statehood bid will not bring about a miracle solution while deep mistrust continues to run between Israel and Palestine. The problems the West was too lazy to think about due to its over-faith in the “balance of power”, is now posing serious threats to the stability of the whole region. The West must start working on these long-neglected issues, but as President Obama stated in his speech at UN General Assembly, “there is no shortcut” to peace in the Middle East.