Even as experts and analysts lament the Arab Spring’s cooling into a “harsh winter,” the humid, stagnant summer in Washington is just heating up. As D.C.’s temperatures rise, so do expectations around the city that American policy in the Middle East and North Africa needs to change in order to engage with the new Arab citizenry, growing opposition movements and remaining autocrats.
Recent polls from the Middle East suggest the US’s reputation in the region has plummeted to levels unseen since the end of the Bush administration. The sharp decline of positive Arab attitudes toward the US is partially due to Washington’s inconsistent handling of the revolutions across the Arab world, causing the Obama Administration to lose whatever momentum was leftover from his popular Cairo speech of 2009.
Though the leaked State Department cables criticizing the Tunisian ruling family may have helped spark the revolution there, the United States’ varied responses to subsequent revolts in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and Syria, have left Arabs and Americans alike confused and frustrated with Obama’s lack of consistency in the region.
Over the last few months, scholars, academics, government officials and policymakers who specialize in the Middle East have gathered in Washington to discuss how the US should engage the region. I recently attended one such event at the Woodrow Wilson Center, which brought together Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian diplomat, Ellen Laipson, former Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council and Aaron David Miller, former adviser to several US Secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations. A virtual Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of the Daily Star newspaper, joined via Skype from his office in Beirut.
Expecting to hear a spirited debate, or at least a lively argument on the role the United States should play in the changing Arab world, I was a bit disappointed to discover that most of the speakers were unable to put forward believable policy recommendations. While all of the speakers offered accolades to the Arab people for pushing past their governments to demand more democracy, they seemed to forget that the Arab’s newfound “can-do” attitude did not carry over to Washington, where “wait-and-see” is the prevailing policy approach. The optimism of the Arab Spring does not carry over to the Washington summer.
Though each of the speakers had good ideas as to how the US should handle the Middle East, the changes they suggested were unrealistic-- a combination of changes to US policy so small they could be successful, or so large they would never realistically happen. Rami Khouri went so far as to say that the Arab Spring had left so little room for the United States in the region, that the best thing for the Obama administration is to “act democratically” in its own right, to serve as a model for the budding democracies of the Middle East. What a world that would be! A beautiful sentiment? Yes. A realistic one? No.
What everyone did agree was that the US could establish legitimacy in the region through a policy of consistency there. This too, though, is a tall order for the United States, a country whose varied responses to Libya and Syria over the last few months have demonstrated the impossibility of this proposition.
Nice as the idea of consistency is, one does not have to be a scholar of the Middle East, or a higher-up in American government to realize that this will never happen. Having spent over a quarter century working at US policy from the inside, it was Aaron David Miller who offered the only realistic voice in the room, pointing out what the other speakers knew, but couldn’t admit, “[The United States] cannot realistically be consistent… we choose our democrats.”
There was a somewhat realistic suggestion, put forth by Marwan Muasher, which could be added to a larger regional policy framework. Muasher suggested that our focus should be engaging the leaders of countries that have yet to see major revolts to implement reforms before the people take to the streets, demanding rights on their own.
For the most part, the speakers seemed largely infected by the optimism of the Arab Spring, forgetting that Washington’s agenda was not so malleable. It was only Aaron David Miller who was feeling the heat of the D.C. summer, saying, “The best thing about the last six months was that the US had very little to do with the events that unfolded.”
(Haley Slafer is an intern in the Washington Bureau of Al Arabiya. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)