The problem the Obama administration faces, both politically and substantively, is that while it has numerous foreign policy accomplishments to which it can point, the whole to which they add up remains less than the sum of its parts. For example, while the killing of Bin Laden is something about which Americans are rightfully happy, and the conclusion of the military effort in Iraq, while almost a decade late and a few trillion dollars short, is also a good thing for the U.S., the overall impact these things have on American security, stability in South Asia or the Middle East or other related issues is less clear.
In the recently concluded Egyptian elections Islamists combined for roughly 60% of the vote. Although this is the beginning of a reasonably complex process to form the lower house of the Egyptian parliament, this outcome suggests that Islamist parties will be well represented in that legislative body. Accordingly, it is likely that the post-Arab Spring Egypt may adapt a foreign policy to the west and to Israel that differs sharply from that of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. Moreover, it is all but inevitable that the legislature will adapt laws and policies that are illiberal and will not sit comfortably with western democrats.
Every image of a New York City or Oakland policeman abusing his position, every story about how a veteran or senior citizen was injured by one of these policeman, every image of a university police officer casually pepper spraying a few college students doing nothing more than sitting quietly at a demonstration damages the ability of the U.S. to influence people and governments around the world and provides fodder for those authoritarian leaders who would like to ignore American entreaties before killing or beating up demonstrators in their own countries.
It is still too early to know whether or not the extraordinary events earlier this year in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in North Africa will lead to meaningful and enduring advances for democracy, but the resignations of Hosni Mubarak and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and the threats to the leadership other autocrats in the region have not been lost on authoritarian and semi-authoritarian leaders seeking to remain in power in other parts of the world.
In foreign policy, however, Obama has been far less able to manage expectations. Obama has done little to dampen expectations that he needs to to make progress in bringing peace to the Middle East, peacefully remove autocrats from power in Syria, Libya and Belarus, even quicken the pace of democratization in Egypt since the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak. Obama is also expected to resolve problems he inherited, such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which are still going on with, at best, mixed signs of progress. These expectations are obviously stressed more by critics of the President, but it remains true that Obama is expected to achieve very broad array of foreign policy outcomes.
While the context for Obama’s speech was different than in recent years, the tone of the speech, celebrating and advocating democracy in the Middle East, calling for peace between Israel and its neighbors, and implicitly calling for a major U.S. role in the region, was similar to what most recent U.S. presidents have said. What is perhaps most interesting about Obama’s speech was that a president who has sought to create a new profile and role for the U.S. in the world, during a time of unprecedented change in the Middle East, proposed policies which are largely consistent with those of previous administrations.
The first few months of 2011 have been a good reminder of the role of uncertainty in international politics and foreign policy. The overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, possible ouster of Moammar Gaddafi in Libya as well as widespread demonstrations in Bahrain, Tunisia, where this all started, Moroccoand elsewhere in the Middle East will likely be among the biggest issues and challenges facing American policy makers for quite a while, and will almost certainly dominate foreign policy questions for the duration of Barack Obama’s time as president.
These developments could have a dramatic effect on global politics, changing political alliances, alignments and regimes throughout the Middle East. A democratic wave, anti-American backlash, strengthened Islamist movement presence, consolidation by new secular authoritarian governments or numerous different combinations of these possibilities are all potential outcomes in Tunisia, Egypt and perhaps elsewhere. At any time, these developments would raise an extraordinary challenge for U.S. policy makers eager to ensure American interests are defended and that human rights and democracy are expanded. The U.S. would also be preparing to become involved in the evolution of new political systems and structures in each of these countries offering money, resources, and expertise. Not surprisingly, these sentiments have been reflected, almost implicit, in much of what the Obama administration has said about these events thus far.
The last three weeks or so in Egypt have been extraordinary and inspiring. Thousands of ordinary people joined together peacefully to demand the end to a despotic and corrupt regime. It is far from clear what will come next in Egypt, but even that uncertainty should not take away from the events the whole world has just witnessed. Understanding events in Egypt, and what they mean for the future of that country and the broader Middle East is a challenge which requires the ability to look at the issue from different angles and to consider multiple, often conflicting, ideas at the same time.
History has shown both that revolutions are rare and not the inevitable outcome of large, even massive street demonstrations, and that when most authoritarian regimes are overthrown, they are not replaced by democracies. Moreover, while some democracies, notably those in countries of Eastern Europe like Poland or the Czech Republic as well as the Baltic states arise out of events that could be described as revolutions, most democracies take a very long time to evolve. The American democratic revolution, for example, lasted roughly two centuries beginning with the American Revolution in 1776 which brought independence, followed a few years later by the creation and approval of the U.S. Constitution, and ending when apartheid in the American south was brought to an end with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965. Some other democracies, Germany and Japan, for example, grew out of military defeat, occupation and enormous commitment of resources from other democratic countries.
The massive demonstrations in Egypt against that country's authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak have had some interesting effects on American politics as well. Some apologists for the administration of George W. Bush, notably Elliott Abrams in the pages of the Washington Post, have argued that the events in Egypt have vindicated former President Bush. Believing this assertion clearly requires a very charitable understanding of recent history. There is, of course, very little evidence to suggest that the people struggling in Egypt today are somehow influenced by either the former president's words regarding democracy or by events in Iraq. In some abstract way, Bush was right in that the Egyptian people, like all people, want their freedom, but this is a very tenuous reason for giving the former president any credit for what is happening in Egypt.