The Obama administration’s quiet approach to Arab reform

The Obama administration’s quiet approach to Arab reform

 While the last two years have witnessed a few modest advances in political reform in Arab countries–importantly, women appear to be participating politically in larger numbers–the general trend has been authoritarian retrenchment, a continuation of a downward slide that began in 2006. Ultimately domestic actors drive local political dynamics, but the United States contributes significantly to the international environment in which those actors make decisions, including the incentives or disincentives linked to reform or repression. Last week’s brazen rigging of Egyptian parliamentary elections provides an occasion to reexamine the Obama administration’s approach to supporting Arab political reform during its first two years.

President Barack Obama entered office focused on four major goals in the greater Middle East: halting Iran’s nuclear program, gradually withdrawing US combat forces from Iraq, reversing the conflict in Afghanistan, and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Each represented enormous challenges and required close diplomatic coordination with Arab allies, efforts made difficult by the stark unilateralism of President George W. Bush.

Obama signaled early his intention to launch a “new beginning” with Muslim majority countries, including with allied Arab governments. This commitment to restoring frayed diplomatic ties in the region complicated efforts to support independent civil society actors and substantive political reforms. For example, to satisfy the demands of the Egyptian government the Obama administration decided in early 2009 to halt USAID funding to NGOs that were not registered by Egypt’s Ministry of Social Solidarity. At the same time, the administration quickly became bogged down in major domestic policy issues, including the political, policy and budgetary challenges of dealing with a major recession.

Nonetheless, administration officials tasked with promoting democracy, development and human rights have sought to do what they could within these limitations. They have focused particularly on multilateral efforts. The United States rejoined the UN Human Rights Council and has engaged vigorously with that organ’s country review processes (Universal Periodic Reviews). Following a speech in Krakow by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the US successfully championed the creation of a UN Special Rapporteur on freedoms of assembly and association.

Administration officials say that they are playing a long game when it comes to democracy and human rights, focusing on the international organizational and ideological infrastructure supporting these goals. One such goal is to encourage emerging international powers that are democracies (such as India, South Africa and Indonesia) to support democratic reform and human rights worldwide. The administration has also launched creative initiatives on internet freedom and entrepreneurship, each of which addresses core challenges facing private sector businesses as well as social and political reformers. In addition, US officials are working to correct US practices seen as hypocritical by trying (unsuccessfully so far) to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and stressing that US policies are based on universal human rights principles rather than a made-in-Washington agenda.

Finally, the administration has worked with Congress to make the necessary investments in democracy assistance.  Despite cuts in technical assistance to civil society in Egypt and Jordan, overall levels of US funding for democracy, governance and human rights in the Arab world has increased over the last two years. The administration has increased support to the National Endowment for Democracy (an independent, congressionally-funded body that supports civil society around the world) as well as to two bodies created during the Bush administration: the Middle East Partnership Initiative (a unit within the State Department’s Near East Affairs Bureau that supports non-governmental drivers of socioeconomic reform) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (which awards economic development funds to states that meet certain standards of governance).

The fruits of these efforts in the Arab world have been limited so far. Multilateral efforts have had some modest impact, but are undercut when individual states–especially the United States itself–fail to attach meaningful consequences to UN findings. When the Egyptian government renewed the state of emergency in May 2010 following months of concerted multilateral diplomacy, Washington issued a quiet protest and little more. Likewise, regional observers have criticized the administration’s efforts on internet freedom (for example, training online activists) as at best insufficient and at worst an excuse to avoid tackling more sensitive issues such as political freedom. Meanwhile, the administration’s rhetorical emphasis on working first “here at home” to end US hypocrisy on human rights, while well-meaning, appears to have only reinforced the arguments of Arab governments against reform, undermining diplomatic efforts in the near-term.

To a certain extent, these approaches appear consistent with the risk averse, status quo-oriented tendencies of many US administrations in their first two years. However, the problems may run deeper. The major issue for this administration may not be the relative prioritization of human rights and reform concerns versus other major foreign challenges, but that these categories are viewed as analytically distinct from each other or at least pursued through disconnected bureaucratic pathways. The US government continues to struggle to integrate serious, long-term thinking about development into interagency policy planning, and so far the State Department under Secretary Clinton has resisted efforts to give USAID an independent voice in senior policy meetings.

Another disconnect is that the human rights and political reform bureaucracies within the National Security Council and the State Department focus mainly on multilateral diplomacy and have little impact on the formulation of diplomatic strategies toward specific Arab governments. As a result, protests over human rights abuses have tended to run parallel to, rather than intersecting with, larger bilateral relationships.

Even presidential rhetoric has at times seemed disconnected from the bureaucratic machinery necessary to back up words with action. The broad-ranging infrastructure set up to implement the deliverables in Obama’s dramatic Cairo address in June 2009 has ground to a halt with few significant successes. And Obama’s personal requests to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to end the country’s decades-long state of emergency and hold credible, transparent elections appear to be delinked from policy implications.  

Quiet diplomacy has not succeeded in advancing political reform in the Arab world during the first two years of the Obama administration. There are signs that administration officials are considering ways to adjust going forward, which might yet result in a more assertive effort of frank public diplomacy and substantive policy incentives. In order for the administration to help reverse the regressive trend in Arab politics, it will need to demonstrate stronger linkages between its rhetoric on human rights and political reform on the one hand, and policy consequences on the other.

Andrew Albertson was executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy from 2007 until November 2010.