A wave of change is sweeping the Middle East, but the foreign policy of the Obama administration has failed to meet the challenge. In case after case, Washington has refused to confront repressive regimes and given short shrift to popular movements for democracy. Instead of drawing on the full breadth of American diplomatic, economic and military resources to undermine the dictators, the U.S. has preferred to stand on the sidelines and fret. This ineffectiveness is unworthy of a great power and the world’s oldest democracy.
When a wave of protest exploded in Iran after the fraudulent election of June 2009, the rulers in Tehran faced the most significant challenge since the theocracy came to power. Demonstrators faced brutal repression. Yet, Washington was slow and half-hearted in its response, and Ahmadenijad’s forces could crush the movement for Iranian freedom, at least for the moment.
In Syria, a bloody confrontation between a brutal dictatorship and a rebellion for freedom continues to unfold. Once more, the Obama administration has failed to act: hardly a surprise, given the Democratic Party’s history of revering Assad as a reformer. Can one forget Nancy Pelosi’s shameful pilgrimage to Damascus or John Kerry’s public doting on the dictator? Washington has done little to support the rebels, only recently promising weapons—but not yet delivering them.
In Egypt, the Obama administration did turn against Hosni Mubarak, once an American ally, but it stood faithfully by his successor, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, even as the protests against him grew massive. Although Morsi pursued an agenda inimical to liberal values, Washington shrugged off his critics. This tin-eared allegiance to Islamism-in-power has fanned the flames of anti-Americanism in the Egyptian democracy movement.
The administration has repeatedly betrayed the proponents of democratic change. To grasp the historical significance of the Obama foreign policy, one need only recall the words from President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address: “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” President Obama has definitively succeeded in distancing himself from this legacy of his predecessor. He ignores oppression, excuses oppressors and refuses to stand with those who stand for their liberty: Iran, Syria, Egypt.
The democracy agenda of the Bush administration changed the dynamic in the Middle East and helped pave the way for the Arab Spring, which led directly to the upheavals in Egypt. Although Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power through an election, they ultimately failed because of their lack of political experience in a democratic culture. Washington’s wishful thinking about the Brotherhood has overlooked this ideological and institutional backwardness. Its political immaturity was especially evident in Morsi’s ineptitude at the moment of crisis in July. Facing mass opposition and the pressure from the military, he rejected compromise solutions, preferring defeat and political martyrdom. He is hardly the type of political leader on whom Washington should have placed all its bets.
Forged in decades of repression, the Brotherhood may never be able to transition successfully into a liberal-democratic culture. If it has a productive political future, it will depend on a young generation able to transform it into a moderate, center-right party, analogous to Christian Democracy in Europe. For now, however, the older Brotherhood leadership has opted for a strategy of heroic defeat rather than pragmatic success.
Meanwhile the Egyptian democracy movement has yet to define itself fully. Although it is true that millions of demonstrators called for the end of Brotherhood rule, the regime change depended on the military’s intervention. Writing in al-Ahram, Ismail Serageldin, Director of the Library of Alexandria, insists that this was no coup but an “inexorable revolution.” The mass participation does indeed prove that more than a coup was at stake, but the military played a defining and indispensable role, and the Egyptian military hardly has a reputation of respecting civil rights. The army opened fire on a demonstration in Cairo, leaving 51 dead, mass arrests have taken place, and reports of torture are circulating. The fact that the military ousted the repressive Brotherhood regime does not eliminate the repressive and illiberal potential of the military itself.
The next chapter in the Egyptian narrative will choose between a future defined by military rule or a robust democracy for which Tahrir Square has become an inspirational metaphor. This choice poses a challenge to Washington as well. The US should support Egypt in moving toward liberty with the help of whatever influence and credibility this administration’s compromised foreign policy has not yet squandered. While insisting on the validity of our principles of freedom, equality and tolerance, Washington should find ways to support a broad range of democratic forces in Egypt and make clear to the military that continued funding depends on its acting in ways conducive to the growth of democratic institutions.
Russell Berman is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Comparative Literature and German Studies at Stanford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution