Beginning with the very recent demise of the presidency of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, President Obama has been confronted by a change in the house rules that have governed American foreign policy in the Middle East.
The current governmental crisis in Egypt is already being replicated in Yemen, Algeria, Syria and Jordan and only a political Pollyanna of the highest order would think that the turmoil will end there.
Libya is on high alert. The House of Saud in Saudi Arabia is watching everything that is happening everywhere. The leadership of the United Arab Emirates is uncomfortable, unhappy and in all likelihood they are keeping their private jets fully fueled and at the ready.
When he became president, Barack Obama was presented with certain orthodoxies regarding U.S. foreign policy – certain accepted facts. A central theme with respect to the Middle East and Africa was that stability was more important to American national interests than the aspirations of the average citizens in countries located in the Middle East and Africa.
The United States has supported the stability (and longevity) of monarchies, oligarchies and dictatorships in these two regions in exchange for support of American policies, strategies and initiatives.
These have ranged from anti-communism during the Cold War to support for the American “war on terror” in its various forms and manifestations. Support for American policies with respect to Israel, war against Iraq, war in Afghanistan and opposition to the regime in Iran has been the currency that purchased American support.
This seemed to work well when the United States built coalitions and secured statements of endorsement for the two wars against Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. The tempering of Arab hostility towards Israel from military to simply rhetorical has also been a part of this not so simple equation.
The political awakening of the people in many Middle Eastern and African countries has complicated the equation. With or without American support and endorsement, regime change is coming to these regions.
With or without American support there will be new leadership, new priorities and new visions being articulated in the near future. The right of self-determination is not an American right, it is a human right and that right is now being claimed by more and more people.
Incredibly, but predictably, some critics of the Obama Administration have actually gone on record to suggest that the United States should continue to support soon-to-be-deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak because he has been a “reliable ally” of this country.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, conveniently omits reference to the many billions of dollars that have flowed to this “reliable ally”, enriching Mr. Mubarak, his family and his coterie of supporters, enablers and sycophants. For a billion dollars most people would be reliable.
During the mythologizing of Ronald Reagan that continued over the weekend with the celebration of his 100th birthday, there has been little reference to the inconvenient truth regarding his foreign policy. Wherever and whenever American business and political interests benefited, this country supported and endorsed dictatorial regimes and oligarchies around the world, especially in the Middle East and Africa.
President Obama inherited an American foreign policy tradition that many supported as long as the odor of oppression, torture and repression wasn’t unbearable. Of course, now the winds of change are blowing that odor in all directions and it is the unenviable task of the Obama Administration to come up with a new playbook right in the middle of the game. It’s just like trying to change tires on a moving car.
President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton have been very clear in supporting the concept of change in Egypt, for example. They have not allowed the United States to be anchored by the Reagan policy of supporting stability even in the face of repression. They have recognized the inevitable nature of the change that is sweeping across the region and are taking useful steps to keep America relevant instead of insuring that it will be reviled.
The eternally recalcitrant members of the Party of No will continue to suggest that facing reality doesn’t make sense. But in point of fact the Obama Administration is taking the logical path by supporting and endorsing a process of change.
In this case, it is also the right path.