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Obama: Defender of Democracy Or Ambivalent Bystander?

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Eight years ago, President George W. Bush made an extraordinary pledge to the world in his second inaugural address. He said, “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.” Many around the world would argue that that pledge hasn’t been kept by either George W. Bush or Barack Obama.

President Bush made democracy promotion, particularly in the Middle East, a central theme of his administration. But the democratization path has been rocky, if not treacherous, in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, and most foreign policy analysts agree that the Obama administration’s democracy promotion agenda has shifted, certainly in tone and arguably in form as well from the George W. Bush era.

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Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Students at Cairo University listen to President Barack Obama in June 2009. Although that landmark address raised expectations for a new era of U.S. engagement with the Middle East, Obama's more recent speech at the U.N. General Assembly dampened those hopes, with the president outlining four core interests in the region, none of which involved democracy promotion or human rights.

In his recent address to the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) in September, President Obama said that the United States would continue to “promote democracy, human rights, and open markets, because we believe these practices achieve peace and prosperity.” But he cautioned “that we can rarely achieve these objectives through unilateral American action, particularly with military action.” And he went on to say that “Iraq shows us that democracy cannot be imposed by force.”

The Washington Post editorial page slammed the speech as possibly “the most morally crimped speech by a president in modern times,” one that “explicitly ruled out the promotion of liberty as a core interest of the United States.”

Instead, the president outlined four other core interests in the Middle East: confront external aggression against allies and partners; protect the free flow of energy; dismantle terrorist networks; and stop the development and use of weapons of mass destruction. But he left some wondering about his administration’s commitment to promoting democracy in the region.

The legacy of America’s invasion of Iraq and the ongoing sectarian violence there and, to a lesser degree, the international community’s tortured attempts to promote democracy in Afghanistan have shaped how the Obama administration has responded to the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria (also see “Iraq: A Powder Keg Waiting to Explode?” in the October 2013 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Thomas Carothers, a democracy and rule of law expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in a 2012 report that the George W. Bush administration raised the profile of democracy promotion, particularly in the Middle East, but tarnished it at the same time.

“[H]is administration hurt America’s standing as a global symbol of democracy and human rights through its serious legal abuses in the pursuit of the war on terrorism, especially against detainees and prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay. The negative consequences were manifold: an international backlash against democracy promotion that included extremely high levels of suspicion about the democracy agenda in the Arab world, a greatly heightened reluctance on the part of European and other international democracy supporters to be associated with U.S. policies and programs in this area, and a marked decline in U.S. public support for democracy promotion as a priority of U.S. foreign policy.”

Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said in a Skype interview that the Bush administration “provoked an immense amount of distrust and hostility and resentment on issues ranging from Palestine to Iraq.”

“President Obama is seen with less hostility in the region,” he said. “But whether Obama comes off as a clear and unambiguous supporter of democracy, the record is very mixed.”

President Obama’s first major address touching on democracy was in 2009 in Cairo, where he prefaced his support for democratization in the region with the caveat: “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone.”

Throughout Obama’s two terms in office, the right has attacked him for allegedly retreating from the democracy agenda and for supposedly “apologizing” to other countries for George W. Bush era transgressions. After his speech at the UNGA in September, conservative pundit Linda Chavez wrote, “The man who promised the audacity of hope to his followers has crushed the hopes of millions around the world who looked to the United States to promote human rights and democracy everywhere.”

But Xenia Dormandy, a U.S. foreign policy expert at Chatham House, a leading think tank in the United Kingdom, doesn’t think that Obama has abandoned the democracy agenda.

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Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama holds a roundtable interview with regional reporters Jamal Kashoggi and Sarkis Naoum, right, in June 2009 at Cairo University in Egypt, where the president delivered his first major speech on democracy in the Arab world — which he prefaced with the caveat: "America does not presume to know what is best for everyone."

“The bottom line is that democracy promotion has never stopped,” she said in a Skype interview from London. “There tends to be a perception that Bush was focused on democracy promotion and the Democrats much less so. I don’t think of it that way. President Bush promoted democracy whereas President Obama supports democracy. Obama has said that if others want to move in that direction, we support them, rather than trying to impose our own values.”

Funding for democracy-related programs has indeed remained robust during the Obama years. The president’s request for democracy- and human rights-related activities for fiscal year 2013 is $2.8 billion, a 9 percent increase over fiscal 2012 levels. (In contrast, the House Republican fiscal 2013 budget plan would cut the international affairs budget each year, resulting in a 20 percent decrease by 2016.) But Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that advances the cause of democracy and human rights, notes that the request commits almost 60 percent of the total funds to just five countries —Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico, Pakistan and South Sudan.

According to Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report, 35 percent of the world’s population lives in what they categorize as “not free” conditions. The report also asserted that democratic countries like Ukraine, Hungary, South Africa and Turkey have experienced “backsliding” away from freedom in the last year. Obama’s willingness to negotiate with some of the more notorious countries in the “not free” category, most notably Iran, has also given ammunition to those on the right who believe he’s been too willing to compromise on the democracy agenda.

Others, like Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, think that the Obama administration needs to back off on lecturing other countries about democracy altogether. In a blog post with the not-so-subtle title “It’s Time for Washington to Shut Up about Promoting Democracy,” he wrote, “Around the world, Washington officials cheerfully talk about the importance of democracy while ostentatiously backing autocracy. Today the hypocrisy is most flagrant in Central Asia and the Middle East. Indeed, the administration praised the ‘Arab Spring’ while supporting repression in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and now Egypt.”

The ongoing civil conflicts in Syria and Egypt have put President Obama in no-win positions, walking a tightrope between promoting democracy or coping with anarchy. Initially, the Obama administration tried to work with Muslim Brotherhood leaders after they were democratically elected into office, quietly pushing them to be more politically inclusive. Conservatives though excoriated Obama for bolstering Islamists, while even the Muslim Brotherhood remained suspicious of the outreach.

Then, in refusing to categorize the undemocratic military takeover in Egypt in July as a military coup, which would have triggered an aid cutoff, he drew the ire of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. Now that Obama has suspended a portion of U.S. military assistance to Cairo following the military’s brutal crackdown on the Brotherhood, critics have lambasted the president for jeopardizing the peace pact between Egypt and Israel and supposedly abandoning a linchpin regional ally (echoing complaints from the Saudis that Obama left Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak out to dry). On the flip side, human rights say the temporary freeze doesn’t go far enough.

The administration says the cutoff is a measured response that sends a clear message, suspending “certain large-scale military systems and cash assistance to the government pending credible progress toward an inclusive, democratically elected civilian government through free and fair elections,” according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. But critics say Obama has sapped his leverage by trying to hedge his bets, admonishing the Egyptian military but not outright alienating them.

Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center says the president seems damned no matter what he does in Egypt.

“The secular segment of the Egyptian population has been unhappy with the Obama administration’s approach because they regard Obama as supporting the Brotherhood, but they on the other hand criticize the administration for not having taken a clear stand against the coup d’état.”

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Credit: State Department Photo
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Egyptian Defense Minister Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi in Cairo on March 3, 2013, a few months before the Egyptian military sacked the country's democratically elected president, putting Washington in a diplomatic bind with a key ally in the region.

With more than 100,000 killed so far in the Syrian civil war, the stakes there have been even greater. President Obama retreated from a plan to conduct surgical strikes against the Syrian regime after its suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians when it became clear there was little appetite for strikes among allies, Congress and the American public. Instead, he latched onto a Russian-backed proposal to rid the country of its chemical weapons arsenal, crediting the threat of military strikes for compelling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to agree to the proposal. Either way, it kept America out of another Mideast bloodbath (also see “Battle for Syria” cover profile in the September 2013 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

“The issue of promoting democracy just doesn’t cut it for the American public,” said Sayigh. “The experiences of the last decade, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, have soured the American public on military involvement in the Middle East. And I don’t think that the Obama administration is willing to risk its interests to promote democratization in the Arab countries. Unless the U.S. has strong national interests, it probably won’t act at all, which is the situation in Syria. The U.S. may be concerned, but fundamentally, Syria is a sideshow.”

Dormandy says there is very little the United States can do in Syria, where the rebel groups remain fractured and allied with a hodgepodge of extremist elements.

“Unless the parties want to come together and govern in a credible way, there’s not much you can do about it,” she said. “You can support, you can urge, you can encourage, you can fund, but in the end, unless the people on the ground want to move in that direction, there is not a lot you can do about it.”

Obama did try to frame the case for surgical strikes in international security terms, arguing that turning a blind eye to al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons would send a dangerous signal to Iran and North Korea as they advance with their own nuclear programs.

Sayigh says the Obama administration even tried to make the case that Congress should authorize airstrikes against the Syrian regime on the basis that it would bolster Israel’s security, usually a reliably crowd-pleasing refrain in the halls of Congress, but even that didn’t work.

“They moved from saying, ‘This is something that is immoral and abhorrent,’ to saying, ‘This is something that is bad for Israel,’ and the fact that it was also bad for hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of Syrians, wasn’t good enough. There is a moral and also a political problem with that, and if you are making people feel like they aren’t important enough, they will draw their own conclusions.”

Ironically, in Libya, Obama seems to be making good on his pledge to pursue core interests like dismantling terrorist networks. But by doing so, he may have inadvertently jeopardized the democratic, if feeble, government that the U.S.-backed revolution helped to install.

The recent Navy SEAL operation that snatched al-Qaeda leader Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai in Tripoli created a domestic backlash that threatens to topple Libya’s fledging government (whose prime minister was briefly kidnapped and released by rebels when word leaked out that his government approved the raid).

In the second half of his second term, President Obama will continue to straddle a fine line in deciding whether or how to engage other non-democratic governments like Russia, North Korea and Venezuela. And it remains to be seen whether Obama will heed calls from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative allies in the United States to be mistrustful of engagement with Iran and its new reform-minded president, Hassan Rouhani.

Iran is clearly a long way from evolving into a democratic state, but Netanyahu and many on the right in the U.S. have maintained the classic Orientalist viewpoint that Arabs aren’t ready for democracy. (Technically, Iranians are not ethnically Arab, though many in the West lump them in this category nonetheless.) Sayigh says that autocratic Arab leaders echo that sentiment as a means of self-preservation.

Obama himself, in his UNGA speech, dismissed the idea that Islam is somehow incompatible with democracy and human rights, rejecting “the notion that these principles are simply Western exports.”

“And while we recognize that our influence will at times be limited, although we will be wary of efforts to impose democracy through military force, and although we will at times be accused of hypocrisy and inconsistency, we will be engaged in the region for the long haul. For the hard work of forging freedom and democracy is the task of a generation,” he said.

But he also pointedly brought up America’s “hard-earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries” and stressed that “such longstanding issues cannot be solved by outsiders; they must be addressed by Muslim communities themselves.”

Not all Muslims are exactly enamored of the American political model. Some even point to the U.S. government shutdown, and well before that, the messy election of 2002 and the fact the George W. Bush took office shortly after his father was in power, as proof that the U.S. system of democracy isn’t a model at all.

Dormandy says that democracy is messy and often ugly and concedes that it may be a long time before countries in the Middle East and beyond can be considered functioning democracies. But she says that the West can’t give up trying to support — but not impose — democracy.

“Remember what Winston Churchill said?” she asked. “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”


About the Author

Dave Seminara (@DaveSem) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 3, 2013