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United States policy toward the Arab Spring: A struggle between ideals and self-interest

23/07/2012, Rome

Gregory Aftandilian, Senior Fellow for the Middle East at the Center for National Policy in Washington DC, gave a seminar on “United States policy toward the Arab Spring: A struggle between ideals and self-interest” at the IAI on July 23. The axis of Aftandilian’s intervention was the dichotomy existing in US foreign policy between rhetoric in support of human rights and democracy building, on the one hand, and the protection of strategic interests abroad, on the other.

Aftandilian assessed the three focal points of Bush’s policies in the Middle East, and compared these to Obama’s priorities since 2009. It emerged that, while Bush strongly supported democratisation in the region, Obama has promoted a pragmatic approach, trying to reach out to Muslims and improve peace talks between Israel and Palestine, and focusing on the Iranian nuclear threat to stabilise the region. It was already clear in his 2009 Cairo speech that Obama’s interest in democratisation was limited with respect to these other issues.

Subsequently, Aftandilian analysed the evolution of US foreign policy towards the Arab spring via select case studies. He stressed that the United States has no strategic interests in Tunisia, and that is was for this reason that the Obama administration did not take an active approach. This changed radically when the revolutionary winds reached Egypt, a key US ally in the region. In fact, Aftandilian underlined the critical elements that pushed the United States to support the uprising: demonstrators belonging to an educated, secular middle class, and embracing democratic ideals; Mubarak showing no will to compromise by refusing to implement the reforms demanded by the people; the historic role played by the military, which could and is effectively overseeing the transition period; and the possible consequences of prolonged instability in the region. And it changed again when the Arab spring spread to Bahrain. Here the United States refrained from openly denouncing the government’s crackdown on protestors, given the paramount strategic interests in the island and neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which intervened militarily in the tiny sheikhdom. This stance contrasted with most official statements highlighting the need to respect human rights and use moderation in the country. As regards Libya and Syria, Aftandilian presented the “leading from behind” policy adopted by the United States as letting Europe take a stance on the former, and limiting their intervention capabilities to the UN Security Council on the latter. The overall US approach to the Arab spring that emerges from the above case studies is a fairly consistent rhetoric response, followed by effective action only when strategic interests come into play.

A lively debate followed Aftandilian’s talk, focusing among other things on Israeli reactions to the Arab spring, the rise in political Islam and Islamism, the particular situation in Yemen, the roles played by Turkey and the Arab League, US-Russian relations over Syria, and Saudi Arabia and the GCC.