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May 20, 2011 | 01:58 GMT

6 mins read

Obama, Democracy and the Middle East

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday delivered a much-hyped speech in which he tried to lay out a new strategic framework for dealing with the Middle East, one that takes into account recent unprecedented developments in the region. This was Obama's second major speech on the issue, including his much-celebrated June 2009 address in Cairo. While the Cairo address concerned U.S. relations with the wider Muslim world, today's speech was limited to the largely Arab Middle East — understandably so, given the wave of popular unrest that has destabilized the region's decades-old autocracies. Obama's speech is significant in that it forwards the most comprehensive public-relations statement on how Washington is adjusting its policies in response to turmoil in the Arab world. The target audience was both the region's masses, who have long been critical of U.S. policies supporting authoritarian regimes, and its states, which are concerned about how potential shifts in official American attitudes toward long-standing allies and partners threaten their survival. From the U.S. point of view, the evolution under way in the region needs to be managed so that unfriendly forces cannot take advantage of democratic openings and, more important, decaying incumbent states do not fall into anarchy. Supporting democratic movements is thus not just an altruistic pursuit; rather, it is a tool to deal with a reality in which dictatorial systems in the Middle East are increasingly under threat of becoming obsolete. Supporting the demand for political reform allows Washington to engage with and contain non-state actors — even Islamists — that it has thus far avoided. Doing so, however, creates problems with the incumbent regimes, which cannot be completely discarded, since the goal is to oversee orderly transitions and avoid vacuums. This would explain the president's variance in attitude toward different countries. Obama spoke of financially supporting the transitions under way in Tunisia and Egypt, given that the situation in both countries is relatively stable, with their respective armed forces overseeing a gradual process toward multiparty elections. In contrast, the U.S. views the situation in Libya, Syria and Yemen, where regimes are using force to maintain power, as untenable. This explains Obama's far more stern language toward the rulers in these three countries, though he recognized the significant variances between the three cases. Supporting democratic movements is thus not just an altruistic pursuit; rather, it's a tool to deal with a reality in which dictatorial systems in the Middle East are increasingly under threat of becoming obsolete. But the real policy challenge comes in Bahrain, where the sectarian demographic reality and geopolitical proximity to Iran prevent the United States from seriously backing calls for change. Washington cannot afford to see a key ally in the Persian Gulf region turn into a potentially hostile entity. At the same time, though, the United States cannot sit around and watch Bahrain's Sunni monarchy, backed by forces from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, forcefully put down an uprising largely led by the country's Shiite majority. That looks hypocritical, especially as Obama calls out Iran for supporting unrest in Arab countries while suppressing protesters at home. Far more importantly, the United States fears that the Saudi-driven policy of forcefully putting down an uprising led by a majority of the population, while supporting the monarchy controlled by a Sunni minority, will eventually make matters worse and play right into the hands of the Iranians — hence Obama's call on the Bahraini leadership (and by extension the Saudis) to negotiate with the opposition and engage in reforms that can help co-opt their opponents, rather than push them deeper into the arms of Tehran. Clearly, there is a disconnect between Washington and Riyadh on how to deal with unrest in the region, especially as it pertains to Bahrain. The disagreement adds to the tensions between the two sides that resulted from the U.S. decision to effect regime change in Iraq, a move of which Iran has emerged as a major beneficiary. Given Saudi Arabia's importance as a political, financial and energy powerhouse, the United States is prepared to largely overlook the lack of democracy in the religiously ultra-conservative kingdom. That would explain why, save the reference to women not being able to vote, Obama's speech never addressed the Saudis directly. For now, there is no serious movement calling for political reforms in the kingdom, which means the Americans can afford to be ambiguous about the Saudis. Eventually, there is bound to be some spillover effect in the kingdom, which is in the process of transitioning from a geriatric top leadership, and the United States will be forced to give up its ambivalent attitude. But even in the here and now, changes under way in the rest of the region — and especially on the Arabian Peninsula — and the need for the United States to reach an understanding with Iran as U.S. troops leave Iraq, will continue to complicate U.S.-Saudi dealings. A speech stressing the need for reforms in the region could not avoid a discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The developing regional shifts have a direct impact on the chronic dispute. Here again, Obama could not avoid criticizing another close ally, Israel. The U.S. president said the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands threatens Israeli security. Another notable shift in U.S. rhetoric was toward Hamas. Obama did not denounce the Palestinian Islamist movement outright as an irreconcilable force that could not be negotiated with. Instead, he pressed the Palestinians to respond to the question of how Israel could negotiate with a government that included Hamas, so long as the Islamist movement refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist. This places the seemingly intractable problem in the hands of the Palestinians, not the Israelis. Ultimately, the Obama speech was about navigating through an increasingly complex Middle East. It is unlikely to lead to any major changes in ground realities anytime soon. But the speech recognized that the status quo was unsustainable and that all parties concerned need to change their behavior to avoid further turmoil.

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