Is the Obama administration’s approach to advancing democracy and human rights based on the president’s “instinctive idealism” or “Progressive realpolitik?”
The Arab awakening – “the biggest curveball” thrown at the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy – is one indication, say leading analysts.
“Obama’s foreign policy has been sensible and serious but not pathbreaking,” the Brookings Institution’s Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Michael E. O’Hanlon write in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. The pace and complexity of change in the Arab world has exposed the difficulties of formulating and maintaining a consistent foreign policy strategy beyond the administration’s largely reactive approach to events, they contend in a largely sympathetic assessment.
“The Arab awakening is the biggest curveball thrown at Obama to date. The president has managed the turmoil and tensions relatively well, recognizing that these revolutionary stirrings are not about the United States and that he therefore has limited ability to affect their outcomes,” the Brookings experts contend:
Unlike during the protests in the wake of the June 2009 Iranian elections, when Obama muted his criticism while the Iranian regime suppressed the pro-democracy movement, the president has put the United States’ voice behind popular demands for freedom and democracy across the Arab world and assisted in toppling unpopular dictators in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, while doing his best to protect U.S. interests in stability in the Gulf. There have been tactical missteps: the humiliation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the failure to push effectively for meaningful reforms in Bahrain, and the subsequent slowness to push for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster. But in general, Obama’s instinctive idealism has put the United States on the right side of history, and his innate pragmatism has served him well in striking a new balance between American values and the United States’ strategic interests in a volatile region.
To the contrary, the administration’s approach to democracy and human rights in the Arab world and elsewhere has been one of “ambivalence” and a parochial obsession with domestic affairs, claims Daniel Henninger, writing in today’s Wall Street Journal.
The case of blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng confirms that such idealism “has completed its passage away from the political left, across the center and into its home mainly on the right—among neoconservatives and evangelical Christian activists.”
“Conservatives didn’t capture the issue. The left gave it away,” Henninger claims:
“[T]he current generation of Democratic foreign-policy intellectuals want the U.S. to pursue its goals inside the ‘pragmatic’ framework of international institutions or alliances, rather than ‘going it alone.’ Progressive realpolitik.”
The early years of the Obama administration were clearly characterized by a certain ambivalence and equivocation towards democracy and human rights as a central motif of foreign policy, say analysts.
More than a few ‘Democratic foreign-policy intellectuals’ cautioned against an overreaction to the Bush administration’s Freedom Agenda.
Liberals should not abandon an internationalist approach, warned Princeton University’s Anne-Marie Slaughter – prior to becoming the State Department’s head of Policy Planning – or else “realists could again rule the day, embracing order and stability over ideology and values.”
Nevertheless, the Obama administration’s early emphasis on engaging authoritarian leaders and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s omission of democracy as one of the priority “three D’s” of US foreign policy initially alarmed rights activists.
But it took the “electric shock” of the Arab Spring for the Obama administration’s democracy policy to emerge from a phase of retreat and recalibration to revitalization, according to a leading democracy analyst.
“It will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy,” Obama said in his celebrated May 2011 speech on the Arab awakening.
The Obama administration “has generally supported the calls for democratic reform sweeping Arab states but his administration’s policy has differed in response to regime crackdowns,” according to a recent Council on Foreign Relations survey.
“While endorsing military force to protect Libyan civilians and tough economic measures against the Syrian regime, U.S. reaction has been more muted in response to the regime backlash against demonstrators in Bahrain, a regional ally,” the CFR notes.
In this respect, the Obama administration has simply adopted the same strategic calculus as its predecessors, said Carnegie’s Thomas Carothers: where compelling strategic interests are at stake – as in Bahrain, Central Asia or oil-rich sub-Saharan Africa – democracy and human rights are secondary considerations.
“Thus, the unevenness of Obama’s commitment to democracy abroad is more a continuation of a decades-long pattern than a change or a retreat,” he argues in Democracy Policy Under Obama: Revitalization or Retreat?, a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The current Arab awakening confirms the challenge of maintaining strategic consistency when events demand a case-by-case approach, some observers suggest.
In Egypt, the region’s most important and strategically significant state, the administration is taking a calculated risk, the Brookings analysts contend:
In demanding that the SCAF abide by Egypt’s recent election results and allow the Islamists to take power, Obama is betting that rather than attempting to impose sharia on a quarter of the Arab world’s population, the Muslim Brotherhood, out of a need to generate tangible results for those who voted for it, will prefer the stability that comes from cooperating with the United States and preserving the peace treaty with Israel. Obama has made a judgment that it will be less damaging to U.S. interests to try to shape this dramatic development than to encourage its suppression. But it is a gamble; standing on the right side of history now means accepting that one of the United States’ most important Arab partners will be led by Islamist religious parties and betting that their pragmatism will outweigh their ideological opposition to liberalism, secularism, and U.S. regional objectives.
But the evident fragility of Washington’s strategic relationship with Cairo is likely to be offset by the “strategic windfall” arising from the conflict in Syria, Iran’s sole Arab state ally:
Cutting off the Syrian conduit for Iran’s meddling in the affairs of the Arab-Israeli heartland would represent a major strategic setback for Iran. Already, Assad’s international isolation and preoccupation with his country’s severe internal challenges have significantly reduced his ability to support Iran’s proxy Hezbollah in maintaining its grip on Lebanon. Meanwhile, Hamas is busy moving out of the Iranian orbit and into the Egyptian camp as the influence of its Muslim Brotherhood patron in Egypt rises, manifested in the withdrawal of Hamas’ external headquarters from Damascus and the cutoff of Iranian aid to the group.
In a keynote speech to the National Democratic Institute, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed that U.S. foreign policy – in the Arab world as elsewhere – needs to balance ideals and interests, reconciling democracy and human rights concerns with security, economic and other strategic interests.
“Obama’s balancing of American values and interests is likely to be put to the test in the Persian Gulf sooner rather than later,” say Indyk, Lieberthal and O’Hanlon:
Saudi Arabia seems determined to hold back on political reform at home, prevent it altogether in neighboring Bahrain, and carve out an exemption on political liberalization for all the kings and sheiks in its wider neighborhood. This cannot work as a long-term solution, even though the monarchies enjoy greater legitimacy among their people than the pharaohs and generals who have ruled in other parts of the Arab world.
The turmoil roiling the region will demand a strategic reorientation and the negotiation of new partnerships with its regional allies, the Brookings analysts contend:
Indeed, it seems likely that no Arab authoritarian regime will remain immune for long from popular demands for political freedom and accountable government. Obama’s inclination to let these transitions play out on their own is understandable, but it might well seem shortsighted down the road unless he can find a way to negotiate a new compact with Saudi King Abdullah. Obama needs to convince the king that drawing up a road map that leads eventually to constitutional monarchies in the neighborhood, first in Bahrain, but over time in Jordan and other Gulf Cooperation Council states, too, is the better way to secure these kingdoms and the interests of their subjects.
“On balance, it is not clear that a more consistent U.S. policy in the Middle East would have produced better results since the upheavals began,” the Brookings analysts conclude:
The United States’ influence has been inherently limited in most cases. But the net effect of the tumultuous developments in the Arab world, when combined with Obama’s failure to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and Turkey’s determination to play a leadership role in the Arab world at the expense of its relationship with Israel, has left the United States without a consistent strategy beyond reacting to the crosscutting currents of unpredictable events.
In one respect, however, Obama’s foreign policy is distinctive, says Carothers: the absence of a “transformational narrative” that posits democracy as a strategic or policy priority.
But that is not a reflection of the president’s ideological inclination towards idealism, pragmatism or realism, he says.
“This absence of a central narrative, and one in which democracy promotion would have a natural place, is not a failing of President Obama and his foreign policy team,” Carothers notes. “Rather, it is a reflection of the state of the world.”
Given other foreign policy imperatives, most administrations’ approach to democracy assistance is necessarily “eclectic,” so the challenge is ensuring its sustainability through the institutionalization and bipartisan support that is “central to embedding such initiatives in the policy bureaucracy so they last through successive administrations – as exemplified by the notable longevity of the National Endowment for Democracy.”