President Barack Obama is expected to address criticisms of the administration’s approach to the Arab spring this week in a “fairly sweeping and comprehensive” speech on the Middle East.
He will deliver a major address “on the Middle East and U.S. policy in the Middle East…to a broader audience than just the Arab world,” an administration official said. Two years after Obama used a speech in the Egyptian capital to re-engage the Muslim world and call for reform, the speech is already being dubbed Cairo II.
The Obama administration has been criticized for inconsistency and double standards in supporting democratic change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, while appearing reluctant to back pro-democracy protests elsewhere in the region.
“I don’t think you can get away with a Mideast policy that just cherry-picks the easy ones,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Others have argued that a case-by-case approach or ‘boutique strategy’ is both unavoidable and beneficial in the light of the US’s varying economic, security and other strategic interests in the region and the president’s own pragmatic approach to foreign policy.
“The ‘Arab spring’ has huge uncertainties,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So they want to avoid a one-size-fits-all doctrine.”
The speech comes at a moment of sobriety and realism, as the transitions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya appear increasingly tenuous and authoritarian regimes digging in to resist change.
With the momentum of the protest movements either stifled or stalled, Obama is likely to stress the need for the region’s regimes to initiate genuine democratic reform that address citizens’ needs and demands or else risk provoking more radical and violent convulsions.
“We’re rapidly coming to a fork in the road, where one path leads to change and reform and the other leads to retrenchment and repression,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center. “It’s going to be a long and bloody haul, and it could take us over a number of years.”
Others suggest that Obama should use the speech to stress that freedom is indivisible and that democratization will be a protracted, precarious and reversible process.
“The Arab Spring should be seen like its namesake, the Prague Spring of 1968,” writes Rami Khouri, a Beirut-based analyst:
The Arab world is like the old Soviet empire: the Hungarian revolt in the mid-1950s, the 1968 Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, the 1980 Solidarity movement in Poland, and the Russian dissidents throughout those decades ultimately peaked and broke through in 1989-1990 to engineer the collapse of Soviet authoritarianism. That was a gradual but cumulative process, with several springs followed by terrible winters of repression, just as we are witnessing across the Arab world today.