Shadi Hamid: What Obama and American Liberals Don’t Understand About the Arab Spring

Shadi Hamid: What Obama and American Liberals Don’t Understand About the Arab Spring

 Throughout the Arab spring, analysts and policymakers have debated the proper role that the United States should be playing in the Middle East. A small number argued that the U.S. should adopt a more interventionist policy to address Arab grievances; others, that Arab grievances are themselves the result of our aggressive, interventionist policies; and still more that intervention was simply not in our national self-interest. The Obama administration, for its part, attempted to split the difference, moving slowly, especially at the outset, to censure dictators like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Bashar Al Assad in Syria, while eventually supporting aggressive military action against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.

The reasons for the Obama administration’s passivity during the Arab spring have been many, but perhaps none is more helpful in explaining it than the notion of “declinism.” With the exception of neoconservatives and a relatively small group of liberal hawks, nearly everyone seems to think America has less power to shape events than it used to. An endless stream of books and articles has riffed on this theme. The most well-known of the genre are Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, Parag Khanna’s The Second World, and, from a more academic perspective, Charles Kupchan’s The End of the American Era.The Obama administration has appropriated some of the main arguments of this literature. An advisor to Obama described U.S. strategy in Libya as “leading from behind,” which Ryan Lizza, in TheNew Yorker, explained as coming from the belief “that the relative power of the U.S. is declining … and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.”

But in an ironic twist of fate, even as Americans seem to be placing an all-time low amount of faith in their ability to effect change around the world, many Arabs participating in the recent uprisings—despite their apparent fear and loathing of U.S. power—placed a disproportionate amount of their faith and hopes upon us. Americans—and American liberals, in particular—have yet to grasp this basic paradox. In their time of need, facing imprisonment, torture, and even death, protesters, rebels, and would-be revolutionaries still look to the United States, not elsewhere. Whether they find what they’re looking for is another matter.

DURING THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION, when anti-American sentiment spread like wildfire across the Middle East following the invasion of Iraq, policymakers on all sides of the political spectrum, but particularly liberals, gravitated away from support for interventionism in general and democracy promotion in particular. The “kiss of death” hypothesis—in which overt American support for Arab democracy movements is considered toxic to the cause—became commonplace.

But it is worth noting that Bush’s short-lived embrace of Mideast democratic reform—despite his deep personal unpopularity throughout the region—did not appear to hurt the Arab reform movement, and, if anything, did the opposite. This is something that reformers themselves reluctantly admit. In 2005, at the height of the first Arab spring, the liberal Egyptian publisher and activist Hisham Kassem said, “Eighty percent of political freedom in this country is the result of U.S. pressure.” And it isn’t just liberals who felt this way. Referring to the Bush administration’s efforts, the prominent Muslim Brotherhood figure Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh told me in August 2006, “Everyone knows it. … We benefited, everyone benefited, and the Egyptian people benefited.”

Liberals had often told the world—and, perhaps more importantly, themselves—that the Bush administration’s destructive policies were a historic anomaly. When a Democrat was elected, America would undo the damage. For many liberals, including myself, this was what Obama could offer that no one else could—a president with a Muslim name, who had grown up in a Muslim country, who seemed to have an intuitive understanding of the place of grievance in Arab public life. But, after President Obama’s brief honeymoon period, the familiar disappointments returned. In a span of just one year, the number of Arabs who said they were “discouraged” by the Obama administration’s Middle East policies shot up from 15 percent to 63 percent, according to a University of Maryland/Zogby poll. By the time the protests began in December 2010, attitudes toward the U.S. had hit rock bottom. In several Arab countries, including Egypt, U.S. favorability ratings were lower under Obama than they were under Bush. Indeed, an odd current of “Bush nostalgia” had been very much evident in Arab opposition circles. In May 2010, a prominent Brotherhood member complained to me: “For Obama, the issue of democracy is fifteenth on his list of priorities. … There’s no moment of change like there was under Bush.”

Indeed, while the Arab spring was and is about Arabs, it is also, in some ways, about us. If for decades, the U.S. was seen as central in supporting autocratic Arab regimes, so it was assumed that it would be just as critical in facilitating their demise. Before the Egyptian revolution, the leader of the liberal April 6 Movement, Ahmed Maher, told TheAtlantic: “The problem isn’t with Mubarak’s policies. The problem is with American policy and what the American government wants Mubarak to do. His existence is totally in their hands.” Islamists, meanwhile, have a specific term—the “American veto”—dedicated to a belief in America’s outsize ability to determine Arab outcomes. The United States, so the thinking went, could prevent democratic outcomes not to its liking.

When unrest broke out in Egypt, activists therefore hung on every major American statement, trying their best to interpret the Obama administration’s sometimes impenetrable language. On Al Jazeera, Egyptians asked why the U.S. and Europe weren’t doing more to pressure the Mubarak regime. Two of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading “reformists,” Esam el-Erian, as well as Abul Futouh, wrote op-eds in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Futouh’s op-ed—simultaneously overestimating America’s influence, decrying it, and believing that, somehow, it could be used for good—is representative of the genre: “We want to set the record straight so that any Middle East policy decisions made in Washington are based on facts. … With a little altruism, the United States should not hesitate to reassess its interests in the region, especially if it genuinely champions democracy.”

Read the rest of the article on TNR.