The first blush of the Arab spring may be over – for protesters and for US policymakers. In retrospect, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt looked almost easy. But from Libya to Bahrain, the outcomes appear less certain and the choices before President Obama and the West are getting much trickier.
Remember how difficult it seemed for the United States to decide how to respond to Egypt? The Obama administration weighed backing a longtime ally, albeit a dictator, against supporting a democratic revolution that might well be hijacked by extreme Islamists.
It correctly, and finally, chose the democratic revolution, and now US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is visiting Egypt and Tunisia, giving American support for democratic transitions.
But a new phase in the Arab uprisings involves the use of force, and that enormously complicates matters. In Libya, rebels are urging a no-fly zone as Muammar Qaddafi’s armed forces roll back rebel gains with heavy artillery backed up by air power.
The international community is split over the zone, with some players such as Germany and the US worried about being sucked into another war in a Muslim country. Of particular concern to the US is overextending an already stretched military. Nearly two-thirds of the American public say the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting, and in a new Pew poll, 63 percent say the US does not have a responsibility to act in Libya.
And yet, left unchecked, the dictator’s advances against the rebels send a signal to entrenched rulers in the rest of the region that armed forces can save an authoritarian regime. That message invites violent repression of peaceful uprisings and a lost chance to democratize much of the Middle East. Indeed, longtime autocrats in Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia – allies of the US – are following such a course.
Today the government in the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain, where the US has a military base, declared a state of emergency. Yesterday, the governing monarchy received backup from more than 1,000 troops led by neighboring Saudi Arabia. The reinforcements were the first large cross-border incursion against democratic revolts.
Bahrain’s three-month emergency law orders armed forces to take “necessary steps to restore national security.” This in a country where the main slogan of demonstrators has been “peaceful” and where US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stopped by last week to urge the government toward substantial, nonviolent reform.
Another complicating factor for the US is its dependence on foreign oil, which was not an issue with Egypt. Washington has been coordinating with Saudi Arabia to keep the taps open to make up for the decrease in oil exports from Libya. And here’s another big wrinkle that did not affect Egypt: the Sunni-Shiite divide within the Muslim community.
This is playing a major role in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia, which is heavily Sunni, is rallying to the aid of the minority Sunni royals next door. They both fear Shiite Iran will interfere to help the majority Shiite protesters in Bahrain. The Saudi monarchy also fears unrest from the country’s Shiite minority. The Obama administration, too, is concerned about an opportunistic Iran extending its influence in the region.
In Libya, divisive tribalism has Washington worried. Can anti-Qaddafi tribes hang together in the long run? American officials are wisely in contact with opposition leaders to find out more about them. Secretary Clinton met with a Libyan opposition leader in Paris Monday night.
Last week, President Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, laid out the overall approach of the White House to events unfolding in the Middle East. He said the administration has to “prepare to take advantage of the profound movement” in the region, “and not be paralyzed in any way by the potential downsides.” Political reform, he said, is the “basis for stability” in the region.
On the ground, though, one wonders if the administration might be losing sight of its North Star principle of supporting nonviolent democratic change. The White House is trying to work with its autocratic friends in Bahrain, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, urging them toward reform.
Will the people be patient enough? Will the regimes really change – or simply delay? And what about their backing of violent repression?
It certainly is not easy for President Obama to see the way in the Middle East. But he does understand that lasting stability is more likely with democracy than under autocracy. He must continue to follow that guiding star, even as he faces some very tough choices between competing US interests.