Voice

Promotion Demotion

Does it even make sense for the Obama administration to push for democracy in the Arab world?

It was "a time of extraordinary transformation," President Barack Obama told the United Nations in the fall of 2011. "Something is happening in our world. The way things have been is not the way that they will be." He had no illusions about what was to come, however: "Progress can be reversed. Prosperity comes slowly. Societies can split apart. The measure of our success must be whether people can live in sustained freedom, dignity, and security."

The two years that followed offer a harsh verdict. There is little freedom, dignity, or security to be found in Egypt's military coup, Libya's rough militias, Tunisia's political stalemate, Iraq's spiraling crisis, the Gulf's repressive sectarianism, Jordan's and Morocco's stagnation, or the horrors of Syria's civil war. Small wonder that this year, Obama framed the Arab uprisings rather differently: "the convulsions in the Middle East and North Africa have laid bare deep divisions within societies, as an old order is upended and people grapple with what comes next."

Nobody should have been surprised by the difficult transitions, the ongoing turbulence, or by the ferocity and resilience with which regimes clung to power. Obama clearly wasn't. In my book, The Arab Uprising, completed in late 2011, I warned that previous periods of mass popular mobilization in the Arab world had resulted in the consolidation of even worse forms of authoritarianism. But warning against such future struggles is different from living in the middle of them -- and even skeptics might not have expected the bad times to be quite this bad.

Should -- or could -- Obama have done more to help? There's clearly a lot of frustration within the American democracy promotion community about Washington's role in these setbacks. The Project on Middle East Democracy's 2014 report on U.S. government support for democracy promotion efforts in the Middle East conveys a sense of this frustration. The authors do praise the Obama administration's efforts to secure funding to support the Arab transitions in a terrible budget environment. But they lambast the administration for lacking a "clear vision or strategy." They are particularly concerned by what they see as declining political support for democracy promotion and an administration "even more unwilling to take actions that might antagonize allied governments in the region than was the case before the 2011 uprisings."

Advancing democracy, political freedoms, and human rights should absolutely remain core American goals for the Middle East, but the last few years should force some real rethinking about how it can best accomplish those goals -- and more humility about what it can accomplish. The Arab uprisings unleashed massive power struggles between highly mobilized political actors with the highest stakes. Newly empowered publics had little interest in American tutelage on how to conduct their politics. Arab leaders had little interest in American advice about how they should best secure their thrones. The Egyptian military's view of American efforts were made painfully clear by their 2011 attacks on American democracy and civil society NGOs. Arab activists on all sides of the political spectrum are rarely shy about sharing their disdain for American policies.  Neither the United States nor any other outside actor was ever going to be able to manage those processes.

Sure, the United States could have done some things differently. For one, it should have done more politically and financially to back up its rhetorical praise for these transitions back in early 2011 -- when it could have mattered. The MENA Incentive Fund might have made some marginal difference back in the summer or fall of 2011, for instance, but now would be largely irrelevant even if it finally secured funding. Washington might have sent a very different signal had it not sat by while Bahrain and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies crushed its popular uprising, or if it had taken a more forceful response to Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) attacks on Egyptian protestors in late 2011. But those effects would only have been felt on the margins: Egyptians or Bahrainis might have hoped for American help for their cause but they were hardly waiting eagerly for Obama to lead.

At any rate, that was then. Now, it's difficult to see much point to most of the commonly discussed "democracy promotion" ideas. There's very little that the United States can usefully do to help -- and a lot less appetite in Washington for even trying. Those pushing for more spending on democracy and governance programming today must reckon with the limitations imposed by the new environment and the failures of past efforts. There is little leverage to be exercised, few friends to support, no receptivity among even supposedly friendly governments -- and other "friendly" governments are actively working against anything Washington might try to do. American democracy NGOs aren't likely going to be able to operate in places like Egypt anytime soon. It isn't clear that Washington even knows what it would demand of the Egyptian regime were it to try to use its supposed leverage by suspending military assistance (not that it would matter if the Saudis immediately replace it with twice as much unconditional aid). It's hard to care about whatever elections might eventually now be held in Egypt any more than we cared about elections under Mubarak. Frankly, spending money on Syrian refugees and humanitarian relief does make more sense than throwing it at democracy and governance programs right now.

This dismal regional environment does not mean that the United States should stop thinking about supporting change, though. Transitions may have failed, enthusiasm dimmed, autocrats regained the upper hand, and polarization divided publics, but few of the deeper structural trends that drove the Arab uprisings in the first place have faded. New counter-revolutionary regimes such as Egypt's are likely to prove no more stable or effective than their predecessors. That makes this a good time to rethink some of the core assumptions.

For instance: does the United States actually want democracy in the region? Generally, the answer has been no. The American alliance system in the Middle East has always been based upon friendships with autocrats who are willing and able to pursue foreign policies which are broadly unpopular with their publics. Autocracy was a necessary condition of America's strategic posture in the region. But many in Washington believed that untrammeled autocracy left these allies at risk of instability. Democracy promotion in practice usually meant either efforts to build and support civil society, or to nudge autocratic regimes to be more tolerant, inclusive, or open to elections to relatively powerless parliaments -- without actually changing the regimes in question. Those regimes didn't particularly care for the efforts, but most would at least tolerate the ones they viewed as harmless -- which naturally shaped which programs got funded and executed.

The Obama administration from 2011-2013 was one of the very few exceptions to this rule, other than the Bush administration's short-lived encouragement of Palestinian elections in 2006 which was quickly aborted when Hamas won. Obama, so often criticized for not caring about democracy, actually proved himself uniquely willing to accept the outcome of Egyptian, Libyan, and Tunisian elections. He chose to support the process rather than back individuals, whether in Iraq's 2010 government formation or in Egypt's transition, and demonstrated his willingness to work with an elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Naturally, most of America's allies in the region -- both the regimes and the elites who did well from those regimes -- were horrified. He was right about both strategies (at least in my opinion).

So what now, after the succession of botched transitions and hostile regional responses to American policies? ? Is there anything that Washington could do which might restore any credibility on democracy -- after tacitly accepting the coup against Mohamed Morsy or the crackdown in Bahrain? Before pushing for more money or rhetoric on democracy promotion, Washington should return to the very beginning: what is the goal? Should the focus be promoting reforms within friendly autocratic regimes in order to help them survive, or should it be on supporting efforts by popular movements to successfully challenge the autocrats? Does the U.S. want to reassure its traditional autocratic allies or to facilitate their challengers?

There are some useful things which the United States could do now. Democracy may not be in the cards, but Washington should take a consistent and forceful public stand against violations of human rights and political freedoms, whether in Bahrain, Syria, or Egypt. It should focus its programming on countries where there's still a chance to make a real difference, such as Libya and Tunisia, rather on "safe" but non-transitioning destinations like Morocco and Jordan. This might involve efforts on the ground to promote cross-sectarian or inter-ethnic relations, and should certainly involve efforts to restrain or counter the barrage of sectarian and polarizing media content. It should also try to find ways to rehabilitate the concept of democracy itself against the disenchantment and fear of change which has taken hold. It should definitely try to communicate more effectively with deeply skeptical Arab publics, and not let the Benghazi tragedy destroy engagement approaches on the ground.

But most of the steps which might actually be helpful will target precisely the survival strategies of now less-friendly and less-secure regimes, while most of those that could actually be funded and implemented won't present such a challenge.  The intensely contested new Arab politics makes it much harder for the U.S. to work both sides of the street, or to get a fair hearing for its arguments even if it tried.  The United States does have a strategic interest in seeing democratic institutions take hold across the Middle East (and, to be fair, in the United States), but it needs to seriously rethink how it tries to support them.

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

A Partial Syria Reset

Obama's diplomatic solution might not stop Assad's war, but it's far better than what airstrikes would have accomplished.

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week, President Barack Obama signaled decisively that he had returned to his senses on Syria. It was a near thing. Less than a month ago, a military strike against the Assad regime appeared as inevitable as it was pointless and potentially disastrous.

But in front of the assembled leaders of the world, Obama acknowledged that "I do not believe that military action -- by those within Syria, or by external powers -- can achieve a lasting peace." He pushed not only for an agreement on Syria's chemical weapons which would "energize a larger diplomatic effort to reach a political settlement within Syria," but pointedly signaled his interest in a Russian and Iranian role in such a settlement. "My preference has always been a diplomatic resolution to this issue," he reminded his audience -- and, perhaps, himself. Sure, all options remain on the table, as they always do, but it seems highly unlikely that Obama has any intention of going through last month's political disaster again.

This remarkable turnaround infuriated hawks from the Beltway to the Gulf, who thought just a month ago that they had finally dragged a reluctant president into their war. Obama might have said during his nationally televised address on Sept. 10 that "I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo." But the hawks who had been calling for American intervention knew better: once the bombing began, the pressure to escalate until victory -- whatever that might mean -- would have been irresistible.

But give the man props. Somehow, he escaped the trap and walked away from the slippery slope, and even converted the near-fiasco into tangible diplomatic progress. Now Obama's calling Iran's president on the phone for the first public contact in decades, his secretary of state is meeting face-to-face with Iran's foreign minister, a Security Council resolution dealing with Syria is on the brink of passage, and a political horizon for meaningful regional change is flickering into view. From Obama to Bush to Obama in sixty seconds.

Despite all the messiness of the process, the American democratic system actually worked on Syria. It wasn't just Russia's diplomatic intervention. Obama may have stumbled into the terrible idea of bombing Syria, but democratic institutions actually pulled him back from the brink. The White House could not have, and should not have, ignored the tsunami of public opinion surveys which showed clearly that Americans wanted nothing to do with the new war and didn't believe that his plans would work (Arab and international public opinion was no more favorable). Congress revolted, with even close allies of the administration signaling their opposition to a military strike (and what better way to help a friend and ally than to stop him from making a terrible mistake?).

What's more, a public debate far removed from the credulous media of 2002 blocked far-fetched ideas about cakewalks or candy-throwing welcomes from gaining any traction. Cable TV talk shows might have plumped for intervention but didn't seem to influence anyone. Interventionist ideas which had been so carefully cultivated in the hothouse environment of D.C. think-tanks wilted almost immediately when exposed to skeptical scrutiny. Perhaps we've forgotten that this is how the marketplace of ideas and the democratic system is supposed to work.

Obama's decision to pull back from air strikes disappointed many, of course, including regional allies who had long been pushing for military action and Syrians desperate for some resolution to the fighting. But their disappointment will have few long-lasting consequences. Concerns about the impact on U.S. credibility can be easily set aside: Iranians understand perfectly well the difference between their nuclear program and Syria's civil war in Washington's thinking. Hawkish Arab leaders will continue as they've been doing for years, carping about America not solving their problems and pursuing proxy wars which directly undermine American priorities. Leaders of Syria's armed opposition may be deeply frustrated about not securing the use of America's fighter jets and Tomahawks, but will likely continue to ask for -- and get -- money and guns.

Syrian rebels are certainly disappointed. But that's not such a bad thing. For too long, key factions of the fractious Syrian rebels have banked upon eventually attracting a foreign intervention on their behalf. If they finally give up on this hope then they might take more seriously the reality of the need for a negotiated, managed transition. Even the declaration of an Islamist alternative to the Western-backed Syrian opposition could help. It changes little on the ground, where the Free Syrian Army never amounted to as much as its backers claimed, local powerbrokers have carved out their own domains, and alliances have been fluid. The new international reality could help the perennially struggling opposition politicians if it galvanizes a sense of urgency for striking a political deal quickly -- rather than waiting for the military cavalry to sweep in and save the day.

If military strikes could have quickly ended the war and helped Syria's suffering millions, then it would be a different story. But even backers of the strikes didn't claim that it would actually have accomplished those goals. In fact, there is more hope for an end to the fighting and meaningful political transition in Syria today than there was a month ago, when the bombs seemed primed for launch. There is a moment for creative diplomacy here, as with Iran, which must not be missed. Obama's well-crafted mention of the suffering of Iranians at the hands of Iraqi chemical weapons linked together the two potential diplomatic initiatives cleverly. With a draft Security Council resolution on a chemical weapons resolution set for a vote on Friday evening, and Iran signaling its willingness to participate in the Geneva talks, Assad's friends suddenly seem less determinedly committed to his survival.

Obama's U.N. speech seemed designed to reestablish the goal that America's policy should be ending the civil war and finding a political agreement on a post-Assad Syria. After the administration's painful, failed flirtation with proxy war and limited intervention, that's reassuring. This does not mean rehabilitating Assad, of course. Obama made clear his view of the impossibility of the architect of such massive war crimes being a part of any legitimate or stable successor regime. But removing Assad is only one step in the long, difficult process of helping to stop the fighting, dealing with the humanitarian crisis, and building a better Syria.

That doesn't mean that Geneva 2 or any other political track is likely to quickly resolve Syria's violent conflicts, shattered state, or humanitarian catastrophe. Nothing will accomplish that -- neither military action nor proxy war nor diplomacy. But for the first time in many months, the political track suddenly seems to be back in play -- and that's a huge improvement from where things stood a month ago.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images