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June 09, 2011 Edition 16

Much ado about very little
Chuck Freilich

President Barack Obama's recent speech on the "Arab spring" was billed as a bold vision of American policy towards a Middle East undergoing revolutionary change, a first conceptually comprehensive statement of the US view of the dramatic events in the region. In the end, it was much ado about very little.

Articles in this edition
Obama's emerging philosophy of self-determination - Daniel Kurtzer
Much ado about very little - Chuck Freilich
The voice is Obama's; the hands are Bush's - Joel Beinin
Out of Arabia - Issandr El Amrani
Denuded of the boilerplate rhetoric, the president's message was clear: the United States will continue to pursue the same policy it has adopted since the Arab spring began. Events in each country will be treated as discrete policy issues, not as part of a broad regional vision or normative commitment, and the US will support reform where it serves its interests and as long as the price--politically, economically and especially militarily--is minimal. No clarion call for democracy, no broad strategic vision, just reactive realpolitik, with best wishes.

The president did not even mention Saudi Arabia, let alone encourage reform of what is arguably the most heinous regime on earth. Not a word about Saudi military suppression of Bahrain. His support for reform in Iran did not even reach the level of half-hearted, once again missing the opportunity to take the high moral ground and promote regime change in the ultimate strategic prize in the region. He offered an uninspired aid package for Egypt and others.

On Iraq, whose semi-democracy was achieved at a heavy price in American blood, Obama's only operative statement was a reminder of the withdrawal of US troops, along with a vapid commitment to remain a "steadfast partner". Yemen's brutal dictator "needs" to step down.

On Libya and Syria, the inconsistencies in Obama's policy were starkest. While Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who gave up his nukes, ceased terrorism and sought renewed international acceptance, has been "wimp-whacked" by NATO, Obama offered no new US prescriptions, merely the unsubstantiated conviction that time is working against Gaddafi. Syrian President Bashar Assad, who killed far more innocent civilians than Gaddafi prior to the NATO operation, pursued a secret nuclear capability, actively supports terrorists, raped Lebanon and is virulently anti-Israel, was given a mild dressing down, with meaningless sanctions.

Obama correctly noted that the US cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime and has learned from experience how costly and difficult regime change is. As a result, his "message is simple: If YOU [emphasis added] take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the US." In other words, the reformists are on their own.

It is easy to criticize. A broad regional vision is extremely hard to devise. Each country does, indeed, present the US with different challenges, and the costs and benefits of change in each are widely disparate. The mistake may have been in attempting to present an overarching strategy to begin with.

For Israel, a democratizing Middle East portends medium-term instability and great danger, but also long-term hope. An unstable or new Syria could be more bellicose, but might seek to distance itself from Iran and Hizballah. Regime change in Iran would only be for the better. Egypt could take dire new directions, but renewed Egyptian regional leadership might prove beneficial.

The events of the Arab spring will continue to unfold whether or not the US chooses to lead and try to shape them. America's ability to do so is significant, if limited, whereas Israel's ability, other than to act negatively, is almost non-existent. As the Arab spring gives way to what increasingly looks like "autumn", the course of events may be mostly for the worse, certainly from an American and Israeli perspective.

Israel needs clear American leadership--something like, "yes, we are in for a very rough ride but will work together very closely in the hopes of minimizing the dangers and shaping a better Middle East future." Only then would it be justified in supporting a policy based on promoting change. When even the US, with its infinitely greater security margins, adopts a cautious approach, Israel can only hunker down. Specious attempts to link the Arab spring to the peace process only strengthen Israel's concerns.

Under Obama, justified pragmatism threatens to become an abdication of US leadership. Instead of a proactive approach to try to influence the most dramatic developments in the region in decades, the US will largely sit it out and let the chips fall where they may. A Middle East in which the US does not lead, especially a revolutionary one, is a dangerous Middle East--for the US, Israel and the region itself.

Already today, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the hearts of two dark, oppressive and radical Islamist visions of the Middle East and hardly desirable regional leaders, are acting to fill the vacuum, as is Turkey, no longer a force for regional moderation. The prospects for favorable change in Egypt, Syria, Iran, Libya, Yemen--the entire Middle East--are directly tied to the American role.-Published 9/6/2011 © bitterlemons-international.org


Chuck Freilich, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, was a deputy national security advisor in Israel.

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