While the Trump presidency, desperately tries to present itself as normal, advocates of restoring democracy must recognize that this struggle is going to be difficult, and potentially take a long time. No special counsel, even one with Robert Mueller’s impressive credentials, is going to bring this presidency to a premature end absent political pressure from Republicans in Congress. Similarly, while the 25th amendment solution is attractive, simple and neat, it is very unlikely to happen until the political climate changes significantly. For these, or any other approaches, to reign in the excesses of the Trump presidency, and perhaps the presidency itself, extreme vigilance is essential even when there is a shiny object in the Middle East or elsewhere.
Today, however, this order is largely reversed. Instead of foreign countries receiving assistance because they are allies, in much of the world, including large parts of Africa, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, foreign countries are U.S. allies because they receive foreign assistance. Thus, for non-wealthy countries, receiving U.S. assistance is what defines that country as an American ally. To a large extent, the alliance has become the result of the assistance, rather than the other way around.
The U.S. is asking, without success, for the Iranian, Syrian, Russian and Chinese governments to do things that, from their perspective, are not in their interests. It is not really a big surprise that Iran is not giving up their weapons because the U.S. wants them to or that Moscow and Beijing are less anxious than the U.S. to call for a leader to resign because he has used excessive force on the citizens of his own country. The U.S., on the other hand, is asking Egypt to do something that is neither against their interests nor a very big reques
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.
This tsunami is also illustrative of the unique position in which the U.S. still finds itself in this increasingly multi-polar world, and a reminder that in some important ways the U.S. remains the world’s only true superpower. One way to see this is that the U.S. is the only country that is going to be heavily involved, financially and otherwise, in addressing the two biggest global developments this year, the tsunami and the rapidly changing the Middle East. China, for example, may play a role in helping Japan, but will not be investing any resources in trying to make a smooth transition in the new Middle East. Several European countries will come to Japan’s assistance, but not to the extent that the U.S. will.
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.
The WikiLeaks story has unified the political elite in the U.S. elsewhere to a startling degree. It is as almost as if a readiness to strongly criticize WikiLeaks is the not so secret password to be part of this elite. Based on the barrage of attacks on WikiLeaks and its leader Julian Assange, one would think that Assange is single-handedly responsible for the difficulties the U.S. faces all over the world.
For many years the notion that partisan politics ended at America’s shores contained a smattering of accuracy with a healthy overlay of propaganda. There have been too many exceptions over history for that phrase to contain more than a kernel of truth. Partisan disputes about entrance into World War II, Cold War strategy and the Vietnam War were just some of the times that the American political leadership was divided on key foreign policy questions during the time when this framework was allegedly at its strongest. Since the Vietnam War era, disputes over foreign policy from Central America to the Middle East have been a constant presence in our political life.
The election results, however, may have an effect on American foreign policy, but this will probably not be as significant as some might think. The new Republican members of congress will focus likely continue to focus their attention on domestic issues. Moreover, many of these people have very little experience on foreign policy and know very little about it. Of course, this is true regarding domestic policy as well, but lack of experience and knowledge tends to be more of a barrier in the making of foreign policy.
Perhaps a similar dynamic will evolve globally as well. People around the world who saw Obama’s election as evidence of the real promise of America and as a reason to hope that Bush’s America was an aberration may begin to question these assumptions too. This is partially natural as American foreign policy has always been characterized by more continuity than change between administrations. U.S. interests almost never change substantially when a new president comes to office. People anywhere in the world who expected the Obama administration to abandon long standing alliances, tone down U.S. efforts to combat Jihadist terror or to seek to change the U.S. role in international relations were inevitably going to be disappointed.
The events in Iraq and the relatively quiet response to President Obama’s recent speech on the subject suggest, not surprisingly, that Americans are experiencing a relatively acute case of Iraq fatigue. Few Americans who are not directly involved with the war effort seem interested or concerned about the “end” of the war there, but we probably should be paying more attention. The Obama administration has prioritized the war in Afghanistan as their most important foreign policy concern. Other issues such as Iran’s nuclear potential, new, renewed and failed peace efforts in the Middle East and a spate of natural disasters from Pakistan to Haiti have knocked Iraq out of the forefronts of the consciousness of those Americans who think about foreign policy, while the still battered economy has made foreign policy feel less important to most Americans.
The question of whether or not to drill offshore is something of a false construct anyway, because it is meaningless in the absence of other options. There are, of course, other options. We don't have to get our oil by drilling offshore. We can get it by tapping into our reserves or by buying it from somewhere else. If we decide to tap our reserves, we are doing little more than postponing the question about whether or not to drill offshore. Getting our oil from somewhere else, in addition to deeply complicating US foreign policy, is obviously not without an environmental impact. Carbon released by driving a car powered by oil from the Middle East, Central Asia or elsewhere, for example, still contributes to climate change.
This has been a very interesting week or so for U.S. China relations. During this time, internet censorship, the Dalai Lama, Iran, and arms sales to Taiwan have been at the center of the interaction between the two countries. It seems the relationship has come quite a distance since the fall when President Obama traveled to Asia and outlined the import of China to the U.S.
Obama’s first year in office, while far from a foreign policy failure, has not brought resolution to any of the major challenges facing the U.S. Wars continue in Afghanistan and Iraq; peace remains more elusive than ever in the Middle East; Iran is still on the brink of developing nuclear weapons; significant parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union remain concerned about renewed Russian power in that region and the global economic downturn has raised the possibility of political instability in much of the world. This was the capstone year of a decade that has included the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001, a conflict in Iraq that has lasted considerably longer than the U.S. involvement in World War II, plummeting U.S. popularity abroad, the stalling, or even reversal, of the spread of democracy, and rising military, political and economic threats to the U.S. from Teheran to Beijing and from Moscow to Caracas.
As allegations of election fraud, intimidation, violence and ballot stuffing in the recent Afghan elections increase it seems as if the election in Afghanistan is in that gray area where there was a fair amount of fraud, but it is not yet clear whether there was enough for it to have changed the outcome of the election. This puts the U.S. and other international actors in a complicated position. It is not uncommon in elections in semi-democratic, semi-authoritarian, post-conflict, or as in Afghanistan, mid-conflict countries for some amount of mid-level election fraud and misuse of resources to be discounted by international actors because “the voice of the people was heard”, or to phrase it less delicately “the guy who would’ve won (usually the incumbent), won anyway.”
Stability is the last refuge of many non-democratic leaders, but there’s little evidence that these leaders can ensure stability in their own countries or internationally. As Rice pointed out, supporting stability over democracy in the Middle East has often led to greater instability. The Shah was supposed to bring stability to Iran and to the region at large, but many of the region’s current problems are actually linked to that regime and to U.S support. Throughout the Arab world, authoritarian regimes have also shown that they are unable to deliver stability. This isn’t only true in the Muslim world. Does anybody think that the strongman regime of Vladimir Putin has brought stability to the former Soviet Union? Stability in Russia itself is far from guaranteed, particularly given recent events in the North Caucasus.
Recognizing the evolving nature and role of elections is important not so much because, as many opponents of elections argue, elections are inherently dangerous if a country is not “ready” for them. Down that road lies condescension and eternal international administration. Rather, donor countries need to understand that elections are no longer major events which require refocusing all other projects for eighteen months. Too frequently when an election is called in a semi-authoritarian country, money pours in for election-related work, but gets siphoned from other, lower profile, longer horizon type projects which often are more likely to impact the overall democratic progress of that country. Elections cannot, and should not be ignored, nor should we urge countries not to have them if we (whoever that is) think they are not ready, but it is important to adjust our expectations and policies to reflect the relatively muted impact elections have on democratic development in many increasingly authoritarian settings.