Above the Fray: Realpolitik versus political ideals

Genuine leadership from the United States must be applied if the broader Middle East is to navigate through the Arab awakening to establish a more secure and stable region.

Obama (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
The Obama administration has appeared befuddled, slow to react and inconsistent in its response to the awakening of the masses protesting throughout the streets of the Arab world.
Calls for an Obama Doctrine in the region have become louder, urging clarity behind the United States’ regional strategy and goals. However, it is not that US policy has been misguided; rather, it is that the White House’s messaging has been sluggish and ineffective. While it has demanded that the universal right of peaceful protest be ensured in all places, it must also be clear that America’s actions will be dictated by its strategic interests and priorities and those of its allies in the region.
Speaking at the US-Islamic World Forum recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally began to clarify the US approach, stating that she rejected a “one-size-fits-all approach” to the Arab uprisings. Indeed, US policy looks different in Bahrain and Syria than in Libya – due to the fact that US interests are very different in each arena. In her remarks, Clinton announced that President Barack Obama would soon make a major speech on the challenges in the broader Middle East. When he does, the president will be required to answer his critics in a manner that recognizes the gap between US political ideals and the realpolitik of its strategic national interests, while judiciously considering the real interests of its allies.
In the case of Bahrain, the US should not obfuscate: Bahrain is the central battleground of a cold war occurring today between Saudi Arabia, representing the Sunni Arab world on one side, and Iran, representing Persian and Arab Shi’ites on the other. America, along with the vast majority of the Sunni Arab states and peoples, has a clear and vital interest in limiting the expansion of Iranian influence, which threatens to significantly destabilize and radicalize the democratic trends sweeping the region.
Meanwhile, in Yemen, the US is supporting the Gulf Cooperation Council-sponsored plan to transfer power from the long-time US-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In Yemen, our interests are equally clear: a continued and enhanced cooperation with the Yemeni government to clamp down on al-Qaida, which has turned to Yemen as its preferred recruiting and training base. In both Gulf-area hot spots, the US should continue to voice support for peaceful protests and the rule of law, but we should also be clear that we have red lines: disallowing the growth of the extremist influence of Iran and al-Qaida.
NUMEROUS QUESTIONS have been generated from the US’s lack of a response to the growing unrest in Syria.
With more than 400 protesters now killed according to rights groups, and anti-government protests seemingly growing each day, the Obama administration has yet to respond forcefully beyond rhetorical gestures in opposition to violence against the demonstrators, not even recalling its newly placed ambassador for consultation.
Here, the US has been reluctant because of its investment in engaging Syrian President Bashar Assad, in hopes that in transforming his strategic calculations, Syria could serve to usher in a new era of stability in the region, particularly in regard to Lebanon, Israel and Iraq.
Thus far, that engagement strategy has proved unsuccessful.
But if Assad survives this wave of discontent, the offer of engagement could appear much more attractive to him.
Even so, with violence mounting, the US must signal to Assad that it is prepared to work with the international community to ramp up the pressure on his regime. US senators from both political parties have urged the White House to begin supporting Syrian opposition groups, and it should consider doing so. However, even more so, the White House should encourage bodies like the International Criminal Court, which this week suggested that Assad could be brought to trial for crimes against his people, to take action, as well as impose greater sanctions on those Syrian officials implicated in violence, with the support of the United Nations Security Council.
While turning to the international community to build pressure on Assad would serve to advance US interests in Syria and Libya, America must refrain from taking a back seat to NATO in attaining its strategic interests and the interests of the Libyan people. NATO’s disorganized effort indicates that the US is required to lead – and it must not shy away from this responsibility. Obama’s reluctance is understandable. He was elected as the anti- Bush candidate, opposed to the war in Iraq and intent on concluding the war in Afghanistan. However, we cannot allow the trauma – or the mistakes – of previous conflicts to dictate our approach to the pressing ones that must be dealt with in earnest.
Recent reports that the paltry $25 million non-lethal military aid package set to be delivered to the Libyan rebels has been held up for a week, awaiting approval from the White House, is shameful. As the situation in Libya risks descending into a protracted stalemate – which was inherently avoidable – regional leaders are watching Obama to see if he has what it takes to get the job done. His response could impact the weight of US influence throughout the broader region, from Morocco to Afghanistan.
THE OUTCOME of events could very well be determined by that which occurs in Egypt. The Arab world is looking to the largest and most influential Arab nation to navigate the waters of its unexpected revolution and newfound political dialogue. The Egyptian revolution has passed its first phase, but real challenges are now being faced – and they are just the beginning. At this stage, pushing for immediate and sweeping political reforms would be counter-productive. Egypt, more than any other Arab country, must be provided with the means to engage in a massive sustainable development economic program that can empower its people. The Egyptian people rightfully want freedom and food, but not freedom without food.
As The Washington Post reported this week, the continued chaos in Egypt has led some Egyptians to actually support the continuation of the emergency law – the repeal of which was one of the central demands of the throngs of protesters in Tahrir Square. However, the key to lifting the law, and maintaining genuine stability, is economic opportunity. This will be the test of Egypt’s transition – and the US must stand ready to do all it can to help.
Unfortunately, the White House is beginning to act as though it is resigned to accepting the analysis of pundits across the globe: that US influence is on the decline and perhaps is irrecoverable.
This is nonsense. Genuine leadership from the United States can and must be applied if the broader Middle East is to navigate through the Arab awakening to establish a more secure and stable region, which remains central to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It is high time that Obama realizes this, and articulates that while there is not – nor should there be – a single template for responding to the individual circumstances of each nation experiencing unrest, the US does have significant and specific interests at stake. In doing so, Obama needs not forfeit America’s political ideals, but he must advance a strategy to safeguard the US and its allies’ interests while reestablishing America’s moral authority to lead.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.