The hesitant US response to popular upheavals, known as the Arab Spring, now sweeping across the Arab world, has given rise to intense debate within the administration and among academicians.
So far, the Obama administration’s preferred option has been to avoid an overtly intrusive role, preferring subtle ways to safeguard its interests. Even in Libya, the Obama administration opted to let the Europeans take the lead — a policy that came to be known as “leading from behind”.
But this has not been easy, as argued by US historian Victor Hanson in a recent piece in the National Review. Hanson recalls that while in the past, the US had focussed on propping up dictators, now it wants “to help popular insurgents topple unpopular dictators”. But this shift may not work because the Middle East is “a toxic mix of tribalism, sectarianism, fundamentalism and oil; oil in particular, because this is what tempts the US to intervene or to prop up dictators.” He, therefore, recommends that the US instead shift its focus to building educational institutions and economic projects, rather than giving billions to unrepresentative regimes to purchase arms.
It is, however, Henry Kissinger’s observations that merit special interest because of his continuing influence on the US administrations. Pointing out that the US is reengaging with several states in the Middle East while concluding its military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, the practitioner of “realpolitik” asks whether “democratic reconstruction will replace national interest as the lodestar of US policy in the Middle East.” Though the Arab Spring is being led by the youth motivated by liberal democratic purposes, Kissinger is skeptical about its end-result. Being a hard-headed pragmatic, Kissinger is less enamoured with democratic pretensions of popular forces, fearing that “emergence of Islamist forces could lead to further fragmentation in society.” He therefore cautions the US to judge “the revolution by its destination, not by its origins; by its outcome, not its proclamations,” which leads him to advocate that the US not pursue a doctrine of humanitarian intervention in the region, “unless it is linked to a concept of American national security”. This, he explains, is because of concern that “the traditional fundamentalist political forces, reinforced by alliance with radical revolutionaries, threaten to dominate the process.” To Kissinger, the electoral process therefore is suspect too, because it could foster “a new absolutism legitimised by managed plebiscites” that could result in “sect–based permanent majorities”.
Recalling that US policy in the Middle East has consistently sought to prevent the emergence of any hegemon, while ensuring free flow of energy and guaranteeing peace between Israel and its neighbours, Kissinger is worried that anti-Western parties could gain power through the electoral process. In such a situation, the US should be prepared to deal with democratically-elected Islamists governments, but only after ensuring its own national interest and conditioning its attitude to how these governments behave. He is convinced that a situation where “regional governments are either too weak or too anti-Western in their orientation” must not be encouraged.
What Kissinger advocates is in consonance with policies that he pursued during his long stint in the Nixon and Ford Administrations. Promoting US national interest makes eminent sense, but the realist in him fails to acknowledge that more than any other power, it is the US which has impeded the emergence of democratic governments, especially in the Arab world. That some of them have nevertheless emerged as democratic states is not because of US help, but despite its opposition.
President Obama’s pronouncements did generate expectations of genuine change, but there is little, in essence, to distinguish his policies from those of his predecessor. The US would gain much more if its policies were to match its promises and carry greater conviction if they were to be in conformity with international law and the UN Charter. But then morality would come into clash with “realpolitik”!
Published in The Express Tribune, April 17th, 2012.
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