U.S. President Barack Obama gave a speech last week on the Middle East. Presidents make many speeches. Some are meant to be taken casually, others are made to address an immediate crisis, and still others are intended to be a statement of broad American policy.
As in any country, U.S. presidents follow rituals indicating which category
their speeches fall into. Obama clearly intended his recent Middle East speech
to fall into the last category, as reflecting a shift in strategy if not the
declaration of a new doctrine.
While events in the region drove Obama’s speech, politics also played a
strong part, as with any presidential speech. Devising and implementing policy
are the president’s job. To do so, presidents must be able to lead — and leading
requires having public support. After the 2010 election, I said that presidents
who lose control of one house of Congress in midterm elections turn to foreign
policy because it is a place in which they retain the power to act. The U.S.
presidential campaign season has begun, and the United States is engaged in wars
that are not going well. Within this framework, Obama thus sought to make both a
strategic and a political speech.
Obama’s War Dilemma
The United States is engaged in a broad
struggle against jihadists. Specifically, it is engaged in a war in
Afghanistan and is in the terminal phase of the Iraq war.
The Afghan war is stalemated. Following the death of
Osama bin Laden, Obama said that the Taliban’s forward momentum has been
stopped. He did not, however, say that the Taliban is being defeated. Given the
state of affairs between the United States and Pakistan following bin Laden’s death, whether the United States can
defeat the Taliban remains unclear. It might be able to, but the president must
remain open to the possibility that the war will become an extended
Meanwhile, U.S. troops are being withdrawn from Iraq, but that
does not mean the conflict is over. Instead, the withdrawal has opened the door
to Iranian power in Iraq. The Iraqis lack a capable
military and security force. Their government is divided and feeble. Meanwhile,
the Iranians have had years to infiltrate Iraq. Iranian domination of Iraq would open the door to
power projection throughout the region. Therefore, the United States has
proposed keeping U.S. forces in Iraq but has yet to receive Iraq’s approval. If
that approval is given (which looks unlikely), Iraqi factions with clout in
parliament have threatened to renew the anti-U.S. insurgency.
The United States must therefore consider its actions should the situation in
Afghanistan remain indecisive or deteriorate and should Iraq evolve into an
Iranian strategic victory. The simple answer — extending the mission in Iraq and
increasing forces in Afghanistan — is not viable. The United States could not
pacify Iraq with 170,000 troops facing determined opposition, while the 300,000
troops that Chief of Staff of the Army Eric Shinseki argued for in 2003 are not
available. Meanwhile, it is difficult to imagine how many troops would be needed
to guarantee a military victory in Afghanistan. Such surges are not politically
viable, either. After nearly 10 years of indecisive war, the American public has
little appetite for increasing troop commitments to either war and has no
appetite for conscription.
Obama thus has limited military options on the ground in a situation where
conditions in both war zones could deteriorate badly. And his political option —
blaming former U.S. President George W. Bush — in due course would wear thin, as
Nixon found in blaming Johnson.
The Coalition of the Willing Meets the Arab Spring
For his part, Bush followed a strategy of a coalition of the willing. He
understood that the United States could not conduct a war in the region without
regional allies, and he therefore recruited a coalition of countries that
calculated that radical Islamism represented a profound threat to regime
survival. This included Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation
Council, Jordan, and Pakistan. These countries shared a desire to see al Qaeda
defeated and a willingness to pool resources and intelligence with the United
States to enable Washington to carry the main burden of the war.
This coalition appears to be fraying. Apart from the tensions between the United States and Pakistan,
the unrest in the Middle East of the last few months apparently has undermined
the legitimacy and survivability of many Arab regimes, including key partners in
the so-called coalition of the willing. If these pro-American regimes collapse
and are replaced by anti-American regimes, the American position in the region
might also collapse.
Obama appears to have reached three conclusions about the Arab Spring:
- It represented a genuine and liberal democratic rising that might replace
- American opposition to these risings might result in the emergence of
anti-American regimes in these countries.
- The United States must embrace the general idea of the Arab risings but be
selective in specific cases; thus, it should support the rising in Egypt, but
not necessarily in Bahrain.
Though these distinctions may be difficult to justify in intellectual terms,
geopolitics is not an abstract exercise. In the real world, supporting regime
change in Libya costs the United States relatively little. Supporting an
uprising in Egypt could have carried some cost, but not if the military was the
midwife to change and is able to maintain control. (Egypt was more an exercise of regime preservation
than true regime change.) Supporting regime change in Bahrain, however, would
have proved quite costly. Doing so could have seen the United States lose a
major naval base in the Persian Gulf and incited spillover Shiite protests in
Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province.
Moral consistency and geopolitics rarely work neatly together. Moral
absolutism is not an option in the Middle East, something Obama recognized.
Instead, Obama sought a new basis for tying together the fraying coalition of
Obama’s Challenge and the Illusory Arab Spring
Obama’s conundrum is that there is still much uncertainty as to whether that
coalition would be stronger with current, albeit embattled, regimes or with new
regimes that could arise from the so-called Arab Spring. He began to address the
problem with an empirical assumption critical to his strategy that in my view
is questionable, namely, that there is such a thing as an Arab Spring.
Let me repeat something I have said before: All demonstrations are not revolutions. All
revolutions are not democratic revolutions. All democratic revolutions do not
lead to constitutional democracy.
The Middle East has seen many demonstrations of late, but that does not make
them revolutions. The 300,000 or so demonstrators concentrated mainly in
Tahrir Square in Cairo represented a tiny fraction of Egyptian society.
However committed and democratic those 300,000 were, the masses of Egyptians did
not join them along the lines of what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989 and in
Iran in 1979. For all the media attention paid to Egypt’s demonstrators, the
most interesting thing in Egypt is not who demonstrated, but the vast majority
who did not. Instead, a series of demonstrations gave the Egyptian army cover to
carry out what was tantamount to a military coup. The president was removed, but
his removal would be difficult to call a revolution.
And where revolutions could be said to have occurred, as in Libya, it is not
clear they were democratic revolutions. The forces in eastern Libya remain opaque, and it
cannot be assumed their desires represent the will of the majority of Libyans —
or that the eastern rebels intend to create, or are capable of creating, a
democratic society. They want to get rid of a tyrant, but that doesn’t mean they
won’t just create another tyranny.
Then, there are revolutions that genuinely represent the will of the
majority, as in Bahrain. Bahrain’s Shiite majority rose up against the Sunni
royal family, clearly seeking a regime that truly represents the majority. But
it is not at all clear that they want to create a constitutional democracy, or
at least not one the United States would recognize as such. Obama said each
country can take its own path, but he also made clear that the path could not
diverge from basic principles of human rights — in other words, their paths can
be different, but they cannot be too different. Assume for the moment that the
Bahraini revolution resulted in a democratic Bahrain tightly aligned with Iran
and hostile to the United States. Would the United States recognize Bahrain as a
satisfactory democratic model?
The central problem from my point of view is that the Arab Spring has
consisted of demonstrations of limited influence, in non-democratic revolutions
and in revolutions whose supporters would create regimes quite alien from what
Washington would see as democratic. There is no single vision to the Arab
Spring, and the places where the risings have the most support are the places
that will be least democratic, while the places where there is the most
democratic focus have the weakest risings.
As important, even if we assume that democratic regimes would emerge, there
is no reason to believe they would form a coalition with the United States. In
this, Obama seems to side with the neoconservatives, his ideological enemies.
Neoconservatives argued that democratic republics have common interests, so not
only would they not fight each other, they would band together — hence their
rhetoric about creating democracies in the Middle East. Obama seems to have
bought into this idea that a truly democratic Egypt would be friendly to the
United States and its interests. That may be so, but it is hardly self-evident —
and this assumes democracy is a real option in Egypt, which is questionable.
Obama addressed this by saying we must take risks in the short run to be on
the right side of history in the long run. The problem embedded in this strategy
is that if the United States miscalculates about the long run of history, it
might wind up with short-term risks and no long-term payoff. Even if by some
extraordinary evolution the Middle East became a genuine democracy, it is the
ultimate arrogance to assume that a Muslim country would choose to be allied
with the United States. Maybe it would, but Obama and the neoconservatives can’t
But to me, this is an intellectual abstraction. There is no Arab Spring, just
some demonstrations accompanied by slaughter and extraordinarily vacuous
observers. While the pressures are rising, the demonstrations and risings have
so far largely failed, from Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak was replaced by a junta,
to Bahrain, where Saudi Arabia by invitation led a
contingent of forces to occupy the country, to Syria, where Bashar al Assad
continues to slaughter his enemies just like his father did.
A Risky Strategy
Obviously, if Obama is going to call for sweeping change, he must address the
Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Obama knows this is the graveyard of foreign
policy: Presidents who go into this rarely come out well. But any influence he
would have with the Arabs would be diminished if he didn’t try. Undoubtedly
understanding the futility of the attempt, he went in, trying to reconcile an
Israel that has no intention of returning to the geopolitically vulnerable borders of 1967 with a
Hamas with no intention of publicly acknowledging Israel’s right to exist — with
Fatah hanging in the middle. By the weekend, the president was doing what he
knew he would do and was switching positions.
At no point did Obama address the question of Pakistan and Afghanistan or the
key issue: Iran. There can be fantasies about uprisings in Iran, but 2009 was crushed, and no
matter what political dissent there is among the elite, a broad-based uprising
is unlikely. The question thus becomes how the United States plans to deal with
Iran’s emerging power in the region as the United States withdraws from
But Obama’s foray into Israeli-Palestinian affairs was not intended to be
serious; rather, it was merely a cover for his broader policy to reconstitute a
coalition of the willing. While we understand why he wants this broader policy
to revive the coalition of the willing, it seems to involve huge risks that
could see a diminished or disappeared coalition. He could help bring down
pro-American regimes that are repressive and replace them with anti-American
regimes that are equally or even more repressive.
If Obama is right that there is a democratic movement in the Muslim world
large enough to seize power and create U.S.-friendly regimes, then he has made a
wise choice. If he is wrong and the Arab Spring was simply unrest leading
nowhere, then he risks the coalition he has by alienating regimes in places like
Bahrain or Saudi Arabia without gaining either democracy or
Obama and the Arab Spring is republished with
permission of STRATFOR