This commentary was published in CFR Blog on 18/05/2011
It has been five months since Tunisians took to the streets to demand that their dictator of 27 years, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, cede power. Since that time, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak — a strategic ally of Washington — has fallen; Yemen’s leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is at risk of succumbing to popular protests for change; the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria is engaged in widespread violence to stave off collapse; Bahrain’s ruling family, with the help of Saudi Arabia, has successfully squelched protests demanding a constitutional democracy; and of course, U.S. forces are helping to implement a no-fly zone over Libya — the unstated goal of which is to achieve the end of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.
President Obama will wade into this maelstrom with a major speech at the State Department on Thursday morning outlining how his administration views these developments and how it will approach a radically changed Middle East.
There are some good reasons for President Obama to take to the podium. After all, his Cairo speech on June 4, 2009 addressed a regional order that no longer exists. In addition, while the Middle East has changed radically, Washington remains the predominant power in that part of the world.
Although the United States has not been a central factor during this season of uprisings, there are many people in the Middle East and at home who are keenly interested in how the Obama administration plans to approach the dynamic and complex politics of an entire region in transition. There is also a sense among some analysts that as Middle Eastern politics change, Washington now has an opportunity to help shape the direction of the region.
The substance of the speech should hardly be a surprise. It would be odd for the president to deliver an address about change in the Arab world without offering his full support for the aspirations of millions of people demanding freedom from tyranny. As a result, expect Obama to declare that Washington stands behind people who are demanding freedom and dignity, express admiration specifically for what Egyptians and Tunisians have accomplished and offer U.S. support to help them realize their revolutionary objectives.
For example, there are reports that Obama will offer Egyptians some form of economic assistance that will re-float an economy that has contracted precipitously since Mubarak’s fall in February. The President will also call on those Middle Eastern leaders who remain in power to undertake political and economic reforms before they too become overwhelmed and swept away with demands for political change.
In addition, if the president wants to turn a new page with the Arab world, it will be hard to do so without acknowledging in some way Washington’s past support for the dictators of the region. This would be an important symbolic gesture that could help ameliorate the mistrust with which many in the region view the United States.
As important as tomorrow’s speech may be, it entails significant risk. Some observers have suggested that the president should not make a speech so long as the Middle East is in flux. There is no guarantee that people power will ultimately prevail.
Consequently, by throwing its support behind protestors demanding freedom, Washington may damage its interests should non-democratic forces in the region triumph. Although this scenario is plausible, it is likely that the United States is already so damaged in the eyes of counterrevolutionaries that it does not matter what President Obama does or says.
Of far more concern is the likelihood that with unambiguous support for the democratic change in the Middle East, the president will be creating expectations in the Arab world that Washington may not be able to meet.
It seems unlikely that should unrest spread to Saudi Arabia, the United States would take steps to foster the end of the House of Saud no matter how illegitimate it may be in the eyes of its own people. Indeed, Washington has already been criticized for the inconsistencies in its approach to change in the region.
Why, for example, did it call for President Hosni Mubarak to leave office, but has not taken that step with Bashar al-Assad of Syria? Why the relative silence on Bahrain’s crackdown? Of course, the choices policymakers face in the conduct of foreign policy are never as clear-cut as many would like to believe. Washington’s interests and cost-benefit analyses tend to vary from country to country.
It seems that the administration runs the risk of being caught in that familiar trap between rhetoric and policy options. Regardless of what President Obama says tomorrow, Washington will likely confront trade-offs and constraints that result in charges of hypocrisy.
This dilemma is probably why the President has decided that this is precisely the time to make a speech and offer his support to the revolutionaries of the Arab world. After all, it’s better to be criticized while at least rhetorically on the right side of history rather than condemned for supporting dictators.