Are Arab democrats and reformists losing confidence in the Obama administration? A recent spate of articles would suggest so.
The U.S. is committed to using “principled engagement” to promote democracy in the Arab and wider Muslim world, Michael Posner, assistant US secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, said recently.
But the Obama administration “often speaks as if it does not recognize the existence of an Arab reform movement,” writes The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl. He cites the frustrations of Kuwaiti parliamentarian Aseel al- Awadhi and Musa Maaytah, Jordan’s minister of political development, who were recently invited to Washington for a conference sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy.
Diehl criticizes the administration’s apparent aversion to the D-word, evident in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent speech at the Forum for the Future, ostensibly a forum to promote democracy, at which she announced a new Civil Society 2.0 project to empower grassroots civil society organizations:
The word “democracy” appeared nowhere in the speech, and there was no reference at all to the Arabs who are fighting to create independent newspapers, political parties or human rights organizations.
President Obama’s Cairo speech failed to address the underlying causes of autocracy and anti-Americanism, writes Fouad Ajami. In fact, the speech’s apologetic and self-critical tone were probably counterproductive since, “In the Islamic world, where American power is engaged and so dangerously exposed, it is considered bad form, nay a great moral lapse, to speak ill of one’s own tribe when in the midst, and in the lands, of others.”
But the administration could yet change course by drawing upon the American diplomatic tradition of “engagements made, wisdom acquired in the course of decades, and, yes, accounts to be settled with rogues and tyrannies,” he concludes.
Similarly, Thomas Friedman is frustrated at the strength and virulence of a toxic narrative prevalent across the Arab and wider Muslim world:
… after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny — in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.
It is a narrative that is encouraged by the region’s regimes, he notes, and which Arab liberals and democrats find equally paralyzing, but it should not undermine the U.S.’s drive for reform and democracy:
…for every Abu Ghraib, our soldiers and diplomats perpetrated a million acts of kindness aimed at giving Arabs and Muslims a better chance to succeed with modernity and to elect their own leaders.
Elliott Abrams takes President Obama to task for downplaying democracy, failing to articulate the case for democratic reform and for neglecting to openly engage with dissidents when visiting authoritarian regimes, as during his recent trip to China. It is possible to balance diplomatic considerations with expressions of solidarity and support for democratic voices, says Abrams, a senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, and former deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration:
Dealing with dictators was accepted as a necessity of world politics in the Reagan and George W. Bush years, and there was plenty of it, but exactly for that reason both presidents felt it critical to make our moral position clear. Those regimes were the ones who needed to apologize, not the United States; the end of those regimes was something we desired, because of our belief in peace and freedom; and the promotion of democracy was our moral duty and our political strategy
Arab public opinion is disappointed with Obama, Marc Lynch concedes:
But it isn’t because he hasn’t lived up to his predecessor’s commitment to democracy and reform………The reason that a growing slice of the Arab public is disappointed with Obama is pretty clearly not because of his attitude towards democracy but because they feel that he is not delivering on his promises to change American foreign policy from the Bush era.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, recently appointed as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, dismisses the charge of strategic retreat. The Obama administration is pursuing a new strategy, she told the NED conference on Arab democrats, responding to local needs and demands through more calibrated and innovative approaches to democracy support.