The Obama Administration and Implications for Freedom and Democracy in the Middle East

, March 31, 2009

Vol. 8, No.25    March 31, 2009

  • The Obama administration marks the return of a so-called “realist” approach and an intentional downplaying of President Bush’s vision of an America that would use its power actively to advance freedom around the world. Few will lament the demise of Bush’s “Freedom Agenda,” which came to be seen as dangerous naivete which risked the stability of the region and with it Israel’s security.
  • The height of folly was the Palestinian elections in January 2006 when, in contradiction to the Oslo Accords, Hamas was allowed to compete and ultimately win without laying down its weapons. Too late, the administration recognized it could no longer take the risk of bringing potentially hostile forces to power through democratic elections.
  • Unfortunately, neither approach addresses the structural and demographic time bombs in the region. A youth “bulge” requires the creation of 100 million new jobs by 2010, according to the World Bank. Yet if economic reform is to be advanced and sustained, democratic development must also take place.
  • The U.S. government can use Arab governments’ insecurity regarding Iran as leverage to encourage real reform. This is particularly true for Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – now engaged in the ideological fight of their lives with Iran and its reactionary allies. Only by establishing a new bargain with these regimes that stresses the need for them to respect internal civil and political rights, while forging a joint response to the reactionary threat, can the U.S. offer a true alternative to theocratic and minority rule.
  • This is not to say that democratic and economic reform need be the priority for the West, but it must remain a priority, if otherwise intractable problems which pose a longer-term national security threat are to be addressed. Allowing autocrats to continue to get away with inaction will simply make the coming tidal wave of Iranian-style revolutions larger and more damaging, placing Israel’s existence in even greater jeopardy than it is now.

 

Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” vs. Obama’s “Realist” Approach

What are the implications of the new U.S. administration for America’s efforts to promote democratic reform in Arab countries in the Middle East, especially after the Gaza War?

Although not all his appointments have been made, it seems clear that President Obama is abandoning all aspects of the Bush administration’s “Freedom Agenda” to consolidate the return of a so-called “realist” approach toward the region. In an oft-quoted section of his inaugural address, President Obama spoke directly to unnamed authoritarian leaders in the region, saying, “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”1 This was an intentional downplaying of President Bush’s final inaugural address in which he made clear that America would use its power actively to advance freedom around the world. As a substitute vision, President Obama offered economic development, excising the words “freedom” and “democracy” altogether in favor of words like “corruption.”

Few leaders in the Arab world or in Israel will lament the demise of Bush’s “Freedom Agenda.” In both his rhetoric and actions they saw a dangerous naivete which risked the stability of the region and with it Israel’s security. First there was the war in Iraq which emboldened Iran; next there was the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon which removed Syria’s stabilizing hand; and finally there was the height of folly that attended the Palestinian elections: In January 2006, in contradiction to the Oslo Accords, Hamas was allowed to compete in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections and ultimately win without laying down its weapons.

The Hamas parliamentary victory was the moment many commentators agree that President Bush’s sang froid finally failed him and his dramatic push for democracy in the region came to an end. Too late, the administration had recognized it could no longer take the risk of bringing potentially hostile forces to power through democratic elections. They thought it better to continue a policy of reliance on authoritarian leaders like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah of Jordan and, soon, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to secure a cold peace and safeguard America’s other national interests.

The Gaza War and its consequences have heightened this perception. As Arab demonstrations against Israel broke out in the Middle East, and restive populations expressed their frustrations with their leaders and, in many cases, a desire for war, many in Western capitals and in Israel paused to give thanks for authoritarian leaders who could keep their people in check and preserve stability. President Mubarak, most dramatically, held the line against Hamas and its calls to open the border with Gaza, emerging as a stalwart and winning kudos from both the incoming and outgoing U.S. administrations for his resolve (as if he was doing something not entirely consistent with Egypt’s national self-interest). The Obama administration, in particular, was extremely grateful, especially since Egypt’s commitment to increase security on the border allowed Israel to cease operations before Obama’s swearing-in ceremony began.

The coincidence of timing between the end of the Gaza War and Obama’s swearing-in ensured that the first days of the president’s term would be consumed with the Arab-Israeli conflict and related issues. Moreover, it reinforced a trend in capitals around the world which has been building ever since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007: The re-establishment of “linkage,” which is the pernicious idea that all problems in the Middle East can be traced back to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This is a view that the Obama administration now holds, seeing the challenges of Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and even our war with al-Qaeda as all interrelated.

This conceptual flaw is troubling enough, but its practical application is even more problematic. Because the Arab-Israeli conflict is of paramount concern, as the Obama administration will likely argue, all else, including efforts to stimulate reform, should be placed on hold since it could “complicate” our efforts at building “mutual trust and mutual interest.” Unfortunately, this does nothing to address the structural and demographic time bombs in the region. And the clock is ticking.

 

Structural and Demographic Time Bombs in the Arab World

Even before the collapse of oil prices and the global economic contraction, the region has faced a youth “bulge” that required the creation of 100 million new jobs by 2010, according to the World Bank. Finding ways to absorb such large numbers of young people into the region’s economy presents a daunting challenge, especially given current unemployment rates of 25 percent or higher.

From Morocco to the Gulf, governmental experiments to revitalize or retool their economies have been taking place, but little has been done to improve democratic governance. In fact, according to Freedom House, the region as a whole has been sliding backwards over the last couple of years, erasing what meager progress there had been.2 The absence of democratic oversight and accountability restrains economic growth and inhibits human development, as the 2002 and subsequent UNDP Arab Human Development reports make clear.3 Parliaments in the region remain weak. Judiciaries lack independence. Political parties do not fulfill their function. Independent media, where it exists at all, is small and harassed. Without such institutions, creating the necessary transparency to provide oversight to the executive branch becomes impossible, fueling frustration and resentment, occasionally driving it underground. If economic reform is to be advanced and sustained, democratic development must also take place.

This is where developments after the Gaza War and the Obama administration’s instincts intersect and make things worse for freedom in the Middle East. The West as a whole, and the United States in particular, has shown an inability to generate and apply pressure on Arab autocrats to carry out internal reform while at the same time seeking their cooperation to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, among other issues. Indeed, for inexplicable reasons, the U.S. fails to see that the governments in the region have as much to fear from Iran and its ideology as the U.S. does, and that they will cooperate with us out of that perceived self-interest. The U.S. government can, in this area at least, use Arab governments’ insecurity regarding Iran as leverage to encourage real reform. This is particularly true for those with the most at stake: Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Today, these three countries are status quo powers engaged in the ideological fight of their lives with Iran and its reactionary allies, Syria, Qatar, Hamas and Hizbullah. Each of the latter has reasons for wanting to alter the fundamental power structure in the Middle East and are increasingly challenging the status quo states on legitimacy grounds. Bashar al-Assad’s “half-men” speech notoriously suggested, “Those waiting to see where the scale of strength will settle have fallen along with their positions.”4 Iran’s current president has suggested the same of King Abdullah, goading him by saying that “all free men and nations have raised their voices in protest…it is expected of you as the Saudi Arabian King…to break your silence.”5 Hizbullah’s Nasrallah routinely urges Arab leaders to heed the voices of their people. Their own lack of legitimacy, of course, never becomes an issue since the forms of government are more or less the same. The Palestinian issue, therefore, becomes the territory over which the rivalry is fought.

 

Egypt Is the Key

From the perspective of our erstwhile allies, the challenge this represents is preeminently one of regional security. Without the U.S., they know they have no possibility of confronting or containing Iran and no prospects of solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the presumed seat of all their trouble. For this reason they seek to enmesh the U.S. in the so-called peace process and in offering security guarantees and weapons systems. But the U.S., even as it shares their concerns regarding Iran, must know that siding with autocrats against their people creates an enormous strategic communication vulnerability. Only by establishing a new bargain with these regimes that stresses the need for them to respect internal civil and political rights, while forging a joint response to the reactionary threat, can the U.S. offer a true alternative to theocratic and minority rule. In terms of this new set of understandings, Egypt is key.

Egypt has perhaps benefited most from its perceived resolve during the Gaza War and subsequently. It is once again at the heart of peace-making and mediation and is simultaneously working toward internal Palestinian reconciliation, even as it hopes to reopen borders in Gaza and revive Arab peace talks. Moreover, it has taken a clear stand. Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit blasted Iran, Hamas, and Hizbullah, saying, “(They tried) to turn the region to confrontation in the interest of Iran, which is trying to use its cards to escape Western pressure.”6 Such straight talk, in the face of what Egypt pretends is strong public pressure for it to support Hamas in its struggle with Israel, indicates that Egypt is not as weak as most claim and that no Egyptian really believes Gaza to be worth the blood of a single Egyptian soldier. But it also points to the fact that Egypt is acting out of its own perceived self-interest, perhaps making Egypt vulnerable to greater U.S. pressure on freedom and reform.

The U.S. should recognize this opportunity and redefine its relationship with Egypt. As it exists, Egypt offers minimal fulfillment of Camp David commitments, free navigation in the Suez Canal, and openness to military coordination with the United States in times of need. In return, the United States provides substantial aid, turns a blind eye to government-condoned anti-Americanism, anti-Israelism, and anti-Semitism, and refrains from actively pursuing fundamental political, judicial, administrative, or economic reform.

This arrangement is no longer sufficient. With a new administration in Washington and the approaching end of the Mubarak era, the U.S. should work to create a more sustainable bargain. In exchange for continued strategic, military, and economic partnership and a commitment to assist Egypt through its political transition, Egypt needs to commit fully to an agenda of constructive regional responsibility and internal reform. This platform would entail fighting corruption and opening political space at least for all groups, parties, and individuals that espouse peaceful, democratic, and non-Islamist political agendas.

Whether the Obama administration will be able to see the wisdom of such an approach is a matter of debate. The president has already given away too much – did his first phone conversation with President Mubarak hint at the need to discuss such a new approach, for instance? And how is one to understand his line about not extending a hand to authoritarians until they unclench their fists if he’s preparing to engage with Iran and Syria without even a mention of human rights? In the meantime, Europe, seeking to lock Obama into its view of foreign policy, has moved quickly to get out in front of him. They have moved quickly to reduce Hamas’ international isolation, for example. Europe has also moved to prepare Syria’s way back into the international fold, while slowing its internal deliberations on EU sanctions on Iran, saying, without irony, that it wants to see what the U.S. approach will be first.

This is not to say that democratic and economic reform need be the priority for the West, but it must remain a priority, if otherwise intractable problems which pose a longer-term national security threat are to be addressed. They have already been allowed to fester too long. Allowing autocrats in the region to continue to get away with inaction, using Israel or Iran as an excuse, will simply make the coming tidal wave larger and more damaging. At some point in the future, the international community along with Israel will be faced with regimes so disemboweled of legitimacy and unable to provide for their people that Iranian-style revolutions will spread across the region, creating profound instability and placing Israel’s existence in even greater jeopardy than it is now.

The reality is that the president’s rhetoric of mutual respect and mutual interest can only be heard through local, state-owned media, used and manipulated by authoritarian leaders. For this reason, Obama’s dramatic, heartfelt outreach will most likely end “in tears.” These leaders have no interest in allowing Obama to speak over their heads directly to their people and certainly not without interpretation. Soon, the mythic return of an age when the Arabs loved the United States will be proven the illusion it always was – unless the U.S. gives up Israel, of course. As President Bush famously said, “For sixty years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of liberty and ended up achieving neither.” Obama’s policies and rhetoric, so far, risk getting even less of both.

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Notes

1. Barack Obama, Inaugural Address, January 20, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/ President_Barack_Obamas_Inaugural_Address.

2. Freedom House, “After Earlier Growth, Decline in Freedom Seen in Middle East in 2007,” press release, January 18, 2008, http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=70&release=613.

3. UNDP Regional Bureau for Arab States, Arab Human Development Report 2002: Creating Opportunities for Future Generations (New York: United Nations Publications, 2002); http://www.arab-hdr.org/publications/other/ahdr/ahdr2002e.pdf. See also Arab Human Development Report 2003: Building a Knowledge Society (New York: United Nations Publications, 2003), http://www.arab-hdr.org/publications/other/ahdr/ahdr2003e.pdf; Arab Human Development Report 2004: Towards Freedom in the Arab World (New York: United Nations Publications, 2005), http://www.arab-hdr.org/publications/other/ahdr/ahdr2004e.pdf.

4. Bashar al-Assad, Speech at the 4th General Conference of the Journalists Union, August 15, 2006, http://www.sana.sy/eng/21/2006/08/15/57835.htm.

5. Press TV, “Ahmadinejad’s Letter to Saudi Arabia,” January 15, 2009, http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=82432§ionid=3510304.

6. Reuters, “Egypt Attacks Iran and Allies in Arab World,” January 28, 2009, http://uk.reuters.com/article/usTopNews/idUKTRE50R4IL20090128.

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Scott Carpenter, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs from 2004 to 2007. He served in Baghdad as director of the governance group for the Coalition Provisional Authority, where he initiated a wide array of democracy initiatives.  Prior to that, he was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, involved in democracy promotion and human rights policy.

Scott Carpenter

Scott Carpenter, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs from 2004 to 2007. He served in Baghdad as director of the governance group for the Coalition Provisional Authority. Prior to that, he was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.