Home inFocus Waiting for Reform: Arab Citizens and Obama

Waiting for Reform: Arab Citizens and Obama

Hayri Abaza Spring 2010

After one year in office, the Barack Obama administration has started to delineate more clearly its policies towards the Arab world. The George W. Bush administration of 2001-2009 had, at least initially, built its policies towards Arab countries around the notion of driving political reform in order to combat radicalization. The current administration, though also concerned with radicalization, took a different approach at first. This approach, which entails taking pressure off authoritarian Arab regimes, is neither a continuation of the Bush administration policies, nor a return to the brutal “realism” of the pre-Bush administrations when the United States ignored democratic reform in the Arab world at the expense of cozy ties with Arab dictators.

While it is too soon to know whether the current policy is right or wrong, the success or failure of the Obama administration’s policy in this area will have a crucial impact on radicalization in the Arab world. Indeed, the Arab masses can be de-radicalized only if oppressive Arab regimes are prodded towards good governance and respect for of human rights.

The Bush Doctrine and the War on Terror

After the attacks of 9/11, the George W. Bush administration took a novel approach to the issue of radicalization in the Arab world. The administration correctly assessed that the United States had to change its sixty year-old policy of turning a blind eye to the oppressive and corrupt practices of regimes that were friendly to U.S. interests. The brutal authoritarian governance of these regimes, it was argued, planted the seed of extremism that turned Arab societies against the U.S. That anger culminated in the September 11 attacks.

Today, the majority of analysts hold that only increased liberties and better governance can put the citizens of the Arab world on the path of de-radicalization. But while this approach could be the best antidote to Islamist extremism, the unintended consequences of the war in Iraq and various mistakes in the implementation of pro-reform policies have mostly discredited the Bush administration’s democracy agenda in the eyes of many Arabs and Americans.

However, just because it was discredited does not mean it was wrong. Abandoning this policy and focusing again on only hard security interests, while simultaneously supporting oppressive Arab regimes, will only increase radicalization and Islamist terrorism in the Arab world. The right policy for the Obama administration is to launch its own democracy agenda towards the Arab world.

Candidate Obama vs. President Obama

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama vowed to tackle a wide range of critical issues related to the Middle East. He vowed to withdraw combat forces from Iraq, reactivate the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians, and make a fresh start with the Arab and Muslim worlds. Senator Obama also spoke about human rights and governance in general terms. Yet, at that time, it was not clear whether Mr. Obama would pursue the Bush doctrine of spreading freedom as one of the main tools for fighting extremism.

Once in office, President Obama signaled that he would keep his promises, and immediately dedicated his top foreign policy advisors to shepherding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. This was likely a miscalculation on his part. Both sides thought that the president was asking for either too much or too little. One significant misjudgment by the administration was its demand outside of the scope of negotiations for a cessation of all building in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The outcome after a year: the peace process is a deadlock.

In Iraq, there are strong indicators that President Obama will keep his promise and pull out U.S. troops as the situation improves. The 2010 Iraqi legislative elections will be a test for political stability there. Indeed, successful, free, and fair elections will likely facilitate a peaceful U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

In both Iraq and the Palestinian Authority, the viability of democracy and good governance is dependant upon establishing peace, and sustainable peace is dependant upon the viability of democracy and good governance.

On reform in the rest of the Arab world, the picture is even more opaque. In May 2009, President Obama delivered his “Cairo Speech” to the Muslim world. It was an attempt to mark the dawn of a new day in relations between the United States and Muslims throughout the world. However, the president sent a mixed message. While the prestigious Azhar University, a center of religious influence in the Muslim world hosted the event, it was also held in Cairo, which is the capital of an authoritarian Arab regime.

More importantly, in his address, President Obama did not focus on democracy or more transparent governance in the Muslim world. Rather, he chose to appease America’s authoritarian friends, and used words that would not offend the Arab dictators. The speech was an attempt to please the Muslim and Arab masses, and to signal a new beginning with the Muslim world. However, in the end, it was not clear whether President Obama was addressing the oppressive Arab leaders or the oppressed Arab public.

Curiously, a month after his Cairo speech in June 2009, President Obama addressed African leaders in Ghana, where he spoke at length about the importance of good governance and democracy. Many Arabs wondered, both openly and privately, if there are double standards in America’s rhetoric about good governance. Do these concepts only apply to Sub-Saharan Africa for the good of Sub-Saharan Africans, but not to the Arabs?

Dwindling Support for Arab Democrats

There are some other troubling signs. In his first year in office, the President cut the U.S. democracy promotion budget for key allies such as Egypt and Jordan by about 40 percent. These two countries have authoritarian regimes that undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief with Washington’s tacit blessing for their unaccountable governments.

Egypt, for example, receives about $1.3 billion in military aid and only around $20 million towards democracy promotion and good governance. Furthermore, the administration accepted new restrictive terms by the Egyptian government over which individuals and groups could even benefit from U.S. democracy promotion funds. This certainly does not improve America’s image on the Egyptian street. In the past, failure to stand with democracy and a propensity to overlook the nature of the authoritarian regimes resulted in radicalization. Notably, the Egyptian terrorist groups al-Jihad and al-Gammaa al-Islamiyya thrived during the 1990s, while Washington allowed Egypt to rule as it pleased. These groups went on to become the cornerstone of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.

In all fairness, the Obama administration has increased democracy promotion for countries such as Morocco and Yemen, which have struggled with terrorism. With the exception of Morocco, a unique case in the Arab world, there has been tangible progress in terms of good governance over the last decade.

In addition, the Obama administration has held over two worthwhile initiatives from the previous administration that deal with good governance, citizen and women’s empowerment, and sustainable development in the Arab world. They are the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which deals with development projects and rewards some of the countries in democratic transitions, and the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which supports NGOs working on good governance and women’s empowerment. Both have been particularly successful in helping to cultivate the green shoots of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. The administration has requested a 70 percent budget increase for these programs, signaling that it is still dedicated to some form of a reform-oriented vision towards the Arab world.

Seen from the Arab World

In the end, however, many Arab reformers are concerned by the signals the Obama administration has sent in its first year. Indeed, its support for democratic reform is less than full.

The nightmare scenario for Arab reformers is the “realist” voice in Washington demanding the courting of oppressive rulers in the hope they continue to control disgruntled populations with an iron fist. Those “realists”, however, forget that this stance is precisely why Arabs have a negative view of U.S. policies in the region.

Continuing the status quo will not decrease radicalization. On the contrary, it will add to it. Therefore, appeasing Middle East dictators is a shortsighted policy that will almost certainly backfire.

Hayri Abaza is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the foreign affairs committee of the Egyptian Wafd Party.