Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Obama’s foreign policy failures will haunt this region for years

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001, American officials scrambled to interpret what had happened and plan an appropriate response.

Their reaction can be broken down into two phases. In the first, the United States invaded Afghanistan and expelled the Taliban regime that had hosted Osama bin Laden.

However, beyond that there was a second reading, one that came to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Key officials in the administration of George W Bush believed that the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime and its replacement with a democratic government would produce regional shock waves that would favourably transform Iraq’s Arab neighbours – above all Saudi Arabia, from where 15 of the 19 hijackers came.

Implicit in this reasoning was that undemocratic regimes in the Arab world had allowed youths to engage only in religion and religious mobilisation, while prohibiting democratic activism, where some became increasingly radicalised. These youths were then recruited to engage in terrorist activities against the West.

Mr Bush was much maligned for his worldview, but in 2011, when Arab populations rose up against autocratic leaders, his verdict was generally proven correct. The real problem in the Middle East was shown to be the inability of Arab states to embody the aspirations of their citizens. Social contracts in these states tended to be imposed from the top, while citizens had little input in the political realities imposed on them.

One could not go too far with Mr Bush’s democratisation project. America’s autocratic Arab allies were never pushed too hard to change. And when Barack Obama became president, it became immediately clear in his much-praised, though empty, speech in Cairo that Arab democratisation would not be a priority for the new administration.

And so, when the Arab Spring gained momentum in early 2011, Mr Obama had no template to address it. The president blundered through, pursuing very different policies in Egypt, Libya and Syria, everywhere displaying a short attention span as he continued to focus on his domestic programme.

It would have helped for him to take a closer look at what his predecessor had concluded. Yet nothing would have been more unpleasant for Mr Obama than to take a page out of Mr Bush’s book – even if it meant doing so in reverse.

Indeed, the former president had believed that authoritarianism helped breed terrorism so that the antidote was democracy. But developments in the Arab world after 2011 showed that democracy, without a clear notion of what democratic practises entailed by way of compromises and coalition building, could lead to chaos benefiting extremists.

This was well understood by the Arab dictators themselves. In Libya and Syria, Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar Al Assad provoked civil war, grasping that the ensuing violence would allow Islamist extremists to rise to the top, in that way portraying the dictators as a last line against jihadists.

In other words, Mr Bush may have been too naive by half, while Mr Obama has been too passive by half. Where the former believed that there was a direct link between democracy and curbing Islamist terrorism, Mr Obama did not realise that the void he had allowed in Syria would lead to the outcome he had initially sought to avoid: the empowerment of militant Islamists.

Mr Obama approached Syria with astounding superficiality. He hesitated to arm the opposition, fearing that weapons might reach extremist groups. But he didn’t grasp that by doing nothing, his administration was only creating spaces for the extremists to accumulate power.

That is what former secretary of state Hillary Clinton meant when she told The Atlantic: “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad – there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle – the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.”

Though Mr Obama was defended by a cohort of realist publicists after those remarks, Mrs Clinton’s words obviously stung him. His actions in Iraq were a sign that something had changed, not least because Mr Obama had made success in fighting terrorism a plank in his 2012 re-election campaign. With two years left in office, the president is beginning to think of his legacy.

One thing the proliferating conflicts in the Arab world will do, however, is end any serious debate over democracy. Mr Bush may have reached the right diagnosis about the dysfunctional nature of Arab states, but there was never any agreement over a cure. The violence and anarchy that has engulfed the region in the past three and a half years has cured many people of their idealistic democratic illusions.

This attitude represents a great misfortune, and will haunt the Arab world for a long time to come. If there is an ambient feeling that Arabs are somehow incapable of adapting to democracy, then what does the future hold for them? More decades of repression, which will only bolster extremism and frustration, ensuring that Arab states remain stuck in a cycle of unrest?

Ultimately this is something Arabs themselves must think about, without blaming outsiders. Few have bothered to do so, leaving the region in a grey zone – neither democratic nor stable, in perpetual search of a tomorrow that remains obscure.

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