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What Obama and American Liberals Don’t Understand About the Arab Spring

Throughout the Arab spring, analysts and policymakers have debated the proper role that the United States should be playing in the Middle East. A small number argued that the U.S. should adopt a more interventionist policy to address Arab grievances; others, that Arab grievances are themselves the result of our aggressive, interventionist policies; and still more that intervention was simply not in our national self-interest. The Obama administration, for its part, attempted to split the difference, moving slowly, especially at the outset, to censure dictators like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Bashar Al Assad in Syria, while eventually supporting aggressive military action against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.

The reasons for the Obama administration’s passivity during the Arab spring have been many, but perhaps none is more helpful in explaining it than the notion of “declinism.” With the exception of neoconservatives and a relatively small group of liberal hawks, nearly everyone seems to think America has less power to shape events than it used to. An endless stream of books and articles has riffed on this theme. The most well-known of the genre are Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, Parag Khanna’s The Second World, and, from a more academic perspective, Charles Kupchan’s The End of the American Era.The Obama administration has appropriated some of the main arguments of this literature. An advisor to Obama described U.S. strategy in Libya as “leading from behind,” which Ryan Lizza, in The New Yorker, explained as coming from the belief “that the relative power of the U.S. is declining … and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.”

But in an ironic twist of fate, even as Americans seem to be placing an all-time low amount of faith in their ability to effect change around the world, many Arabs participating in the recent uprisings—despite their apparent fear and loathing of U.S. power—placed a disproportionate amount of their faith and hopes upon us. Americans—and American liberals, in particular—have yet to grasp this basic paradox. In their time of need, facing imprisonment, torture, and even death, protesters, rebels, and would-be revolutionaries still look to the United States, not elsewhere. Whether they find what they’re looking for is another matter.

DURING THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION, when anti-American sentiment spread like wildfire across the Middle East following the invasion of Iraq, policymakers on all sides of the political spectrum, but particularly liberals, gravitated away from support for interventionism in general and democracy promotion in particular. The “kiss of death” hypothesis—in which overt American support for Arab democracy movements is considered toxic to the cause—became commonplace.

But it is worth noting that Bush’s short-lived embrace of Mideast democratic reform—despite his deep personal unpopularity throughout the region—did not appear to hurt the Arab reform movement, and, if anything, did the opposite. This is something that reformers themselves reluctantly admit. In 2005, at the height of the first Arab spring, the liberal Egyptian publisher and activist Hisham Kassem said, “Eighty percent of political freedom in this country is the result of U.S. pressure.” And it isn’t just liberals who felt this way. Referring to the Bush administration’s efforts, the prominent Muslim Brotherhood figure Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh told me in August 2006, “Everyone knows it. … We benefited, everyone benefited, and the Egyptian people benefited.”

Liberals had often told the world—and, perhaps more importantly, themselves—that the Bush administration’s destructive policies were a historic anomaly. When a Democrat was elected, America would undo the damage. For many liberals, including myself, this was what Obama could offer that no one else could—a president with a Muslim name, who had grown up in a Muslim country, who seemed to have an intuitive understanding of the place of grievance in Arab public life. But, after President Obama’s brief honeymoon period, the familiar disappointments returned. In a span of just one year, the number of Arabs who said they were “discouraged” by the Obama administration’s Middle East policies shot up from 15 percent to 63 percent, according to a University of Maryland/Zogby poll. By the time the protests began in December 2010, attitudes toward the U.S. had hit rock bottom. In several Arab countries, including Egypt, U.S. favorability ratings were lower under Obama than they were under Bush. Indeed, an odd current of “Bush nostalgia” had been very much evident in Arab opposition circles. In May 2010, a prominent Brotherhood member complained to me: “For Obama, the issue of democracy is fifteenth on his list of priorities. … There’s no moment of change like there was under Bush.”

Indeed, while the Arab spring was and is about Arabs, it is also, in some ways, about us. If for decades, the U.S. was seen as central in supporting autocratic Arab regimes, so it was assumed that it would be just as critical in facilitating their demise. Before the Egyptian revolution, the leader of the liberal April 6 Movement, Ahmed Maher, told The Atlantic: “The problem isn’t with Mubarak’s policies. The problem is with American policy and what the American government wants Mubarak to do. His existence is totally in their hands.” Islamists, meanwhile, have a specific term—the “American veto”—dedicated to a belief in America’s outsize ability to determine Arab outcomes. The United States, so the thinking went, could prevent democratic outcomes not to its liking.

When unrest broke out in Egypt, activists therefore hung on every major American statement, trying their best to interpret the Obama administration’s sometimes impenetrable language. On Al Jazeera, Egyptians asked why the U.S. and Europe weren’t doing more to pressure the Mubarak regime. Two of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading “reformists,” Esam el-Erian, as well as Abul Futouh, wrote op-eds in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Futouh’s op-ed—simultaneously overestimating America’s influence, decrying it, and believing that, somehow, it could be used for good—is representative of the genre: “We want to set the record straight so that any Middle East policy decisions made in Washington are based on facts. … With a little altruism, the United States should not hesitate to reassess its interests in the region, especially if it genuinely champions democracy.”

The more repressive the Egyptian regime became, the more impassioned the calls grew. I remember receiving urgent, sometimes heartbreaking calls from Egyptian friends and colleagues. One broke out in tears, telling me that if the U.S. didn’t do something soon, the regime was going to commit a massacre under the cover of darkness. That the military did not open fire appeared to confirm America’s still considerable leverage.

Two days before Mubarak stepped down, I met with several of the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth activists. The well-known blogger Abdelrahman Ayyash—only 20 years old at the time—told me that he and other members broke out into applause in Tahrir Square when Obama called for an “immediate” transition to democracy in Egypt. Ayyash’s remark stood out because it echoed something I have been hearing from activists across the political spectrum for more than five years: Despite their sometimes vociferous anti-Americanism, they almost always seemed to want the U.S. to do more in the region, rather than less. Indeed, while the Egyptian activists were happy to see Obama act, nearly all of them told me the administration stood by Mubarak too long, siding with the protesters only at the last moment.

Across the region, activists were even less forgiving in their condemnation of American policy, even as they called on Obama to do more to pressure their regimes to democratize. In March, about a thousand Bahrainis protested in front of the U.S. embassy in the capital of Manama. One of the participants, Mohamed Hasan, explained why they were there: “The United States,” he said, “has to prove that it is with human rights, and the right for all people to decide [their] destiny.” And well before the most recent crackdown, the opposition figure Abdeljalil al-Singace tried to give President Bush a petition signed by 80,000 Bahrainis—around one-seventh of the entire population—calling for a new democratic constitution. In 2009, al-Singace wrote in The New York Times that “it would be good if Mr. Obama vowed to support democracy and human rights. But he should talk about these ideals only if he is willing to help us fulfill them.” Al-Singace—by no means a liberal—is a leader of Al Haq, a hard-line Shia Islamist group with sympathies toward Iran. Yet he was not asking Iran, but rather Iran’s enemy, the United States, for assistance in his country’s struggle for democracy.

This same logic holds true in places like Libya and Syria, where regimes have effectively waged war on their own people, pushing, once again, the question of external pressure to the fore. When you’re being killed, you don’t particularly care who saves you. In the days leading up to the successful U.N. resolution authorizing military force, Libya’s rebels were reduced to begging for Western intervention. In Benghazi, one child held up a memorable sign saying “Mama Clinton, please stop the bleeding.” The Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference—none of which are known as beacons of democracy—all called for a no-fly zone before the United States did. “[The West] has lost any credibility,” rebel spokeswoman Iman Bugaighis said at the time. In such instances, dislike and distrust of the U.S. seems to be inextricably tied to a faith that we can, and should, do the right thing.

EXAMPLES OF THIS SORT of exhortation are too numerous to note and have been a regular feature of Arab commentary. The fact that so many activists, secular and Islamist alike, believe—or want to believe—in America’s better angels undermines the oft-repeated claim that aggressive support for democracy will taint indigenous reformers. But this latter view is one that the Obama administration appears to have maintained during, first, the Green Revolution in Iran and, now, the Arab revolts. Indeed, this “kiss of death” argument is particularly appealing to many liberals because it subsumes arguments for inaction under the guise of helping reformers on the ground. In effect, it argues for doing nothing at the precise moment that doing something would be most effective.

Some liberals, in other words, would like the U.S. to manage its own presumed decline and adapt to a changing world where America cannot and will not act alone. The Arab revolutions, however, make clear that there is no replacement for American leadership, even from the perspective of those thought to be the most anti-American. This puts America in a strong position but also a potentially dangerous one. While the world continues to look to the U.S. for moral leadership, it often comes away disappointed.

This is likely, then, to be remembered as a costly era of missed opportunities for the United States. The Obama administration, and liberals more generally, found themselves unprepared for the difficult questions posed by the Arab spring. Far from articulating a distinctive national security strategy, Democrats were content to emphasize problem solving, drawing inspiration from the neo-realism of the elder Bush administration. But a sensible foreign policy is different than a great one. Pragmatism is about means rather than ends, and it has never been entirely clear what sort of Middle East the Obama administration envisions. Ahead of Obama’s May 19, 2011 speech on the Arab revolts, the White House promised a comprehensive, “sweeping” approach. Instead, the speech promised more of the same—a largely ad-hoc policy that reacts to, rather than tries to shape, events.

Of course, in the case of Libya, as Qaddafi’s forces marched toward Benghazi the United States did act, albeit at the eleventh hour. In rebel strongholds, Libyans raised American flags and offered their thanks to President Obama, something that is difficult to imagine happening anywhere else in the region. The episode only reinforces the idea that, in their moment of need, pro-democracy forces do not look to China, Russia, or other emerging powers. They look to the West and, in particular, the United States. This is what the declinist literature—and the Obama administration—seems willing to discount. Economic power, as important as it is, is no substitute for the moral and political legitimacy that comes with democracy. Declinists draw disproportionate backing from statistics that paint a dim picture of American military and economic competitiveness. Gideon Rachman’s January/February Foreign Policy essay on American decline (subtitled “this time it’s for real”) is based almost entirely on economic arguments. The moral components of power, however, cannot be so easily measured.

But, more than nine months since the Arab spring began, America’s window of opportunity is closing. Arabs can wait for a change in heart, but they cannot wait forever. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the Obama administration has done a passable job in response to the Arab revolts. Passable, however, is not good enough. The gravity of the situation demands bold, visionary leadership—a grand strategy that capitalizes on an historic opportunity for the U.S. to fundamentally re-orient its policies in the region and make a break with decades of support for “stable,” repressive regimes.

On February 9, 2011, I met with Abdel Monem Abul Futouh, who has since left the Brotherhood and is now a leading Egyptian presidential candidate. He was calm and collected, but, with Mubarak stubbornly refusing to step down, there was a sense of fear and uncertainty in his voice. Halfway into our conversation, he was already speaking in the past tense: “America has the power to do something and it didn’t do it. They have democratic values in the U.S. but then they support the opposite in the Arab world.” I asked him what he wanted from the Obama administration. “We want the U.S. to stop supporting corruption and dictatorship in the Arab world,” he replied. “As for how? That’s for them to answer, since they’re the ones who need to do it.”

Shadi Hamid is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.