When President Obama completes his victory lap over the killing of Osama bin-Laden, he is going to have to face the fact that the entire Arab and Islamic world is profoundly confused by his Administration's self-contradictory responses to the Arab Spring protests. After several weeks of confusion and mixed signals, the President finally threw his support behind the Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square, and, following the brutal assaults on those peaceful protesters, called for President Mubarak to step down. As belated and weak his response to the dramatic events in Egypt, he ultimately got it right, and gave his support to those forces demanding progress and greater freedom and opportunity. His reactions to the plight of similar protesters in Bahrian and Yemen was a much more clinical case of severe flip-flopism. Once Saudi troops crossed the causeway into Bahrain, and Saudi officials flooded Washington with claims of Iranian intrigue and fomenting of anti-Sunni revolution, Washington went completely radio silent. By the time that the Yemen situation reached a break point, President Obama had totally deferred to the wisdom of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council, making a few muted comments about the need for reform, but truly walking away from the situation. The case of Libya was complicated by the fact that the country erupted into a fullscale civil war, and the President's Secretary of Defense firmly opposed drawing the United States into yet a third military conflict on Islamic soil.
Enough has happened that there is no longer any excuse for the continuing flip flops. While it is true that each of these situations has unique local features, and the United States is the ultimate guarantor of the free flow of oil from the extended Persian Gulf region, it should not take a genius to see that there is a legitimate outpouring of demands from the Arab people for greater political freedom, a greater stake in the economic and social development of their nations. This demand is in keeping with the fundamental values and history of our own struggle for freedom and the right to develop.
I had the occasion recently to read Thomas Lippman's account of the first meeting, off the coast of Egypt, between President Franklin Roosevelt and the Saudi King, Ibn-Saud in February 1945. FDR clearly understood that the the British had a near total lock on Persian Gulf oil, and that the U.S. deal with the Saudis had strategic implications for the postwar world. While the United States and Britain were the closest of wartime allies, FDR knew that Britain would seek to reconstitute her colonial spheres of influence in the postwar, and that this was not what the United States poured so much blood and treasure to secure. Roosevelt had flown over Saudi territory in 1943 during another wartime summit, and he saw the vast potential for greening the desert, with water management, modern agronomy. Sadly, Roosevelt died two months after his successful meeting with King Ibn-Saud, and subsequent American presidents did not fully carry through on FDR's postwar vision of a world without colonies and empires. Indeed, over time, the United States adopted to the British idea of a "Sunni stability belt," to assure the free flow of oil. This meant that dictators and monarchs were to be fully backed, particularly under the heat of the Cold War, and the desires of the Arab people were to be put on the back burner.
Now, that "Sunni stability belt" policy is under assault by a better educated and demographically younger Arab population. The Cold War rationale for taking sides, even when our allies took draconian measures to reinforce their grip on power, has been over for two decades. Having traveled in the region in early 2010, I saw the growing wealth gap, the increasing public frustration with the flagrant corruption, and the growing sense, particularly among the better educated young men and women, that they had no future, unless and until there was a dramatic change in the way their nations were governed. The food and energy inflation that hit the region particularly hard, in the past 12 months, was one likely factor that led to the boiling over of popular frustration.
Despite the best efforts of the Saudis (and the Iranians, in the case of Syria) to put the genie back in the bottle, through repressive measures, I do not believe that there is any future for the old "Sunni stability belt" toleration for "our dictators" and "our unconstitutional monarchs."
The United States is losing ground by waffling and claiming that each of these situations--Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Iran--are all unique and subject to different rules of engagement. There should be a broad principle of support for the legitimate efforts at betterment and greater participation in the political and economic decision-making. This does not mean that the United States claims some God-given right to interfere in the internal affairs of nations, as Susan Rice, Samantha Power and other Obama Administration proponents of the new doctrine of R2P ("Responsibility to Protect") argue. It does mean that the United States should have a consistent policy, and, to use a Hillary Clinton favorite phrase, employ "soft power" to encourage our friends to recognize and respect legitimate demands from their own people. And this must be matched by appropriate support. I am scandalized by the fact that the Obama Administration is fudging on approving a simple request from the new Egyptian interim government: A forgiveness of the $350 million a year interest payments on a loan whose principal was long-since paid off.
Needless to say, there are "practical" matters that the President's men will argue stand in the way of the President following this advice. First, there is the reelection. And the "Billion Dollar Man" cannot afford to in any way upset the Israel Lobby, whose cash he so desperately needs, if he is to meet his fundraising goals. George Mitchell delivered his own vote of no confidence to the President, by walking out of his job as Middle East peace envoy, on the eve of Netanyahu's visit to Washington, to address a joint session of Congress and speak before AIPAC.
Ultimately, excuses are excuses. They don't cut it during moments like this, when visionary leadership is needed. President Obama's Cairo speech is not just water under the bridge, just two years later. It is a marker of empty words and hypocricy, and it does the United States a great disservice. This legacy of empty rhetoric has to be ended before the United States loses what little is left of our respect and influence around the globe.