• Obama
  • January 23, 2010
  • 17 minutes read

Obama and the Middle East: One Year On, A New Beginning?

Obama and the Middle East: One Year On, A New Beginning?

Nearly a year since U.S. President Barack Obama spoke on the Washington Capitol steps of a “new way forward” with the Muslim world – and more than six months since his landmark Cairo speech of June 2009, perceived administration failures to follow up with tangible policy changes on the ground are causing growing disillusionment in the Arab and Muslim world.


There is little doubt the administration has displayed a strong commitment to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, with ongoing efforts to revive the peace process and move toward a final settlement within two years after negotiations begin. Yet the U.S. continues to face considerable criticism for withdrawing support for democracy in the Middle East, support President Obama suggested the U.S. would provide in his Cairo address.

As a Washington Post editorial pointed out, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained in a recent press conference in Cairo that the administration’s vision focuses on “education, human development and human rights,” but failed to mention democracy, while the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt struggled to respond when asked what the American position on democracy in Egypt was. The rhetorical de-prioritization of democracy has been coupled by budgetary adjustments, with democracy assistance to Egypt and Jordan – two of the largest overall recipients of U.S. aid – slashed by 60% and 23%, respectively.  


Among Obama transition team members and, later, senior Obama administration officials who reviewed Bush administration policies, there was a strong sense that President Bush had needlessly alienated key allies and potential regional partners. In this, they may be correct: as a parting shot, President Bush unilaterally slashed Egypt’s economic aid package by $212 million. The priority, in Egypt and elsewhere, has been to carefully repair such relationships.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration and Democrats in general have aimed to put as much perceived distance as possible between them and their Republican predecessors, who had solidified an unfortunate association between the Iraq war, “regime change,” and the promotion of democracy abroad.

While downplaying democracy promotion may be a good strategy in the court of American public opinion, Arab human rights and opposition activists have expressed growing concern over what they see as a significant shift in emphasis. In December, The Arabist, a leading Cairo-based blog, commented, “Already some people in Cairo are nostalgic (or have been nostalgic for several years) for that 2004-2005 moment when the Bush administration was publicly, relentlessly, critical of Egypt’s lack of political reform.”

Even those not known for their pro-American proclivities have sounded almost wistful. As Esam al-Erian, a senior official in the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s largest Islamist movement, said of the Obama administration’s shift away from pressuring Arab regimes: “The Egyptian file is now up to [President Hosni Mubarak]. He can do whatever he wants internally… It feels like we’ve gone backward a little bit.”


The constituency in Washington – and particularly among progressives – for a more proactive democracy promotion policy has shrunk, in large part because of the Bush administration’s misuse and manipulation of what it termed the “freedom agenda.” That said, the Obama and Bush administrations are animated at a more fundamental level by different sets of assumptions of what can and should be done in the Middle East. For President Bush, the war on terror became the dominant frame of American policy. As first articulated in Bush’s landmark November 2003 speech at the National Endowment for Democracy, conservatives argued that the lack of democracy in the Arab and Muslim world had blocked legitimate channels of political expression, making people more likely to resort to political violence and terrorism. 

In contrast, President Obama has avoided a terrorism-centric approach and attempted to redefine and renew ties with the Middle East based on “mutual respect.” His administration made a strategic decision to elevate Arab-Israeli peace as an overriding priority of U.S.-Mideast policy, recognizing the centrality of Palestine in Arab grievances toward the United States. Accordingly, American policymakers are less interested in putting pressure on autocratic allies, whose support is seen as necessary for progress on the peace process.

Bush’s “tyranny-terror linkage” – almost entirely absent from the Obama administration’s statements on democracy – was not necessarily off the mark as a number of studies, most prominently by Alan Krueger (currently in the Obama administration), Jitka Maleckova, David Laitin, and Alberto Abadie, have demonstrated a significant correlation between levels of autocracy and incidence of terrorism. More broadly, as any number of polls, including this one, suggest, there remains a strong popular desire for democratic governance in the Arab world as well as a desire for the U.S. to play a more consistent role in supporting political reform in the region. While perhaps not as obvious as perceived U.S. bias toward Israel, American support for Arab dictators is often cited as a major grievance by Arab civil society leaders and opposition activists from across the ideological spectrum.

To opt for one over the other is a false choice. There is little reason to believe that the U.S. cannot promote the Arab-Israeli peace process and regional democratic reform simultaneously. There is the oft-cited objection that the more we need the help of allies like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia in advancing our regional interests, the less we can afford to alienate them by pressuring them on political reform. This claim is not, however, borne by the facts. During the Bush administration, one might have expected Egyptian President Mubarak to respond to American pressure by withholding cooperation on key strategic concerns. This, however, did not occur. As Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment notes, “if anything, Cairo tried harder to please Washington [on counterterrorism and regional diplomacy] in 2002-/2006 in the hope of relieving pressure for political reform.”

If, indeed, President Obama wishes to refashion America’s relationship with the Middle East, the relationship will need to be grounded in a broader vision that integrates seemingly competing priorities, whether they be the peace process, political reform, or, increasingly, al-Qaeda’s “re-emergence” in the Arabian peninsula. That vision will fail if it has little to say about the future of democracy in what remains the world’s most undemocratic region.  


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