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The Powerlessness Excuse: Debunking the Claim that Obama Could Not Influence the ‘Arab Spring’

While the U.S. had only so much influence over the Middle East during Obama’s term, that does not change the fact that it did have considerable influence.
Barack Obama at Cairo University

Barack Obama at Cairo University

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One argument we will be increasingly hearing is that President Barack Obama couldn’t have done anything to change events in the Middle East. This is ironic of course because when things were going well he wanted to take credit as the inspiration for the “Arab Spring.”

Let’s remember that the president began with three acts that foreshadowed what was to come. He gave a speech in Cairo in which Muslim Brotherhood leaders were seated at the front, thus making it impossible for Egyptian government officials to attend. Obama thus not only declared himself on the side of the opposition but of the Islamist opposition.

What’s even more important but never noticed was something critical Obama did. In discussing the Middle East and the Arabic-speaking world he exalted Islamic identity. Remember that for six decades national, i.e., Arab, identity had dominated. True, it was used by dictatorships and for demagogic, anti-American purposes.

Now, however, here was an American president declaring that religious identity should dominate. This was an action against both the existing regimes but also against the moderate opposition forces.

After the demonstrations in Egypt began, in January 2011, the U.S. State Department, with the approval of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, advocated a policy in line with traditional U.S. strategy. They would work with the military to institute reforms and more freedom while jettisoning the aged, ineffective President Husni Mubarak. But they opposed the dismantling of the regime.

The White House rejected that approach and publicly declared its desire for Egypt’s fundamental transformation. Anyone who knew Egypt should have and could have predicted this meant Islamist dominance. Yet the administration rejected the idea that this might happen. Indeed, without being asked, Obama publicly stated that he had no problem with a Muslim Brotherhood government taking power. Obama deliberately didn’t consult with the leaders of Israel, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia because he didn’t want to hear their warnings about the risks he was taking and their opposition to what he was doing. He had already decided that a Brotherhood regime would be his preferred outcome.

By such actions, Obama conveyed to the military that it could not expect U.S. support and made it impossible for the generals to try to retain control over events. Indeed, in the following months, U.S. policy under Obama’s direction constantly criticized the military and called for a quick transition.

But that did not mean that the Obama Administration supported the moderate opposition. Reportedly, U.S. programs that helped prepare political forces for elections and taught them lessons about organizing were directed to the Brotherhood, not the liberals. There was certainly no systematic effort to help the moderates. Indeed, in briefings to Congress and the media literally every day in 2011 and throughout 2012, the Obama Administration—under the president’s supervision—whitewashed the Brotherhood as a moderate organization. Anti-American speeches by Brotherhood leaders, calls for Jihad against Israel, extremist actions, and support for violence against U.S. soldiers in Iraq were all ignored. The best known example was intelligence director James Clapper’s declaration that the Brotherhood was a secular, moderate group.

What America says and does has more influence in the region than many Americans think. If local forces fear the United States or think it involved in conspiracies against them (rightly or wrongly) that influences their behavior. They act more cautiously. Moderates and anti-Islamist military officers may be encouraged or demoralized to become more active and tough. In Obama’s case, he persuaded the anti-Islamist forces that he was on the other side and that they had no chance of winning.

Therefore, while of course the main determinant factors took place in Egypt, U.S. influence was considerable but was deployed to help the Brotherhood. If Obama had backed the Egyptian army it probably would have retained control, even while granting a lot more freedom and a role for elected authorities. If Obama had backed the moderates, they probably would have done much better in the elections.

So while, of course, the U.S. government and Obama are only responsible in part for what happened in Egypt, they did have real influence and that was provided to anti-American, radical, and antisemitic forces.

There are those who want to focus on the idea that this was on purpose because of Obama’s own views and nature. Such ideas are not provable and in a real sense aren’t important. What is important is to show that Obama’s actions were objectively against U.S. interests, made peace in the region less likely, and contributed toward creating new dictatorships.

About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.


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