On Thursday, President Obama plans to give a speech on the Middle East. Considering America’s ad hoc response to the Arab Spring so far – and the historic opportunity to support democracy in the region – he needs to put a coherent strategy before the public and Congress.
Despite US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, foreign policy did not resonate with voters in last year’s elections. Since then, Osama bin Laden has been tracked down and killed. Persistent democratic protesters have also shaken autocratic regimes, toppling those in Tunisia and Egypt and prompting US military action in Libya.
Now the president is considering a policy “reset” that takes these earth-moving changes into account. But Mr. Obama must consult now with the people’s representatives – Congress – on his priorities and potential actions in the Middle East.
He’ll have an opportunity next week, when a 60-day deadline to seek congressional authorization for US military action in Libya expires under the War Powers Resolution of 1973.
The administration is apparently approaching this deadline like a lawyer, trying to determine how to wiggle free of the terms and leave Congress out of it. Too often, presidents have sidestepped the legislative branch, which has the constitutional power to declare war. (Regardless what one thought of the Iraq war, George W. Bush at least went to Congress for approval of it.)
Libya requires a debate on the Hill. Important questions remain unanswered: Will NATO allies have the resources and will to engage in a prolonged civil war? Should the US supply and recognize the rebels? What will the US do in the face of a sustained stalemate? And key, how does Libya fit into America’s overall strategy in the Arab world?
If, that is, America can come up with a strategy. The obvious overarching one is democracy-promotion. In the 1980s and ’90s, huge swaths of the world embraced representative government, from Asia to Latin America to Eastern Europe and parts of Africa. They are better off for it, economically and socially, and by extension, so is the rest of the world.
Up until this year, the greater Middle East remained a democratic desert in the world. Clearly, its blossoming would benefit the people who live there and the United States. As a long-term goal, the US should be wholeheartedly backing this transition.
But things are not so simple. Washington has many interests in the region, and some of them seem to directly conflict with a US agenda that would put democracy first.
America allies itself with Gulf countries such as Bahrain (which has violently put down a peaceful democratic uprising) and Saudi Arabia (which is buying off its population). The reason? These countries help keep in check a potentially nuclear-armed Iran that’s a threat to the region, especially Israel.
The US has other interests as well, such as Israel and a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict; oil; antiterrorism; a stable and democratic Iraq; humanitarian concerns. Some of these interests figure into Washington’s tepid responses to the brutal suppression of demonstrators in Yemen and Syria.
At the same time, America’s resources are stretched thin. Might a policy of democracy-above-all logically call for another forced regime change and military engagement by the US?
In this light, President Obama’s hesitancy and case-by-case response may appear to be the less dangerous course for America in the near term. But it still lacks a framework. It still lacks articulation. Out of this stew of interests, he must set priorities.
Some jump out, such as Egypt, which – if successful in its transition – could be a model for the region. Other cases, such as Syria, where a fear of the unknown by the US and Israel seems to be the main hang up, deserves much closer scrutiny.
No matter how the president shapes his reset, however, he must involve the Congress. This time in history is too important, the consequences for America and the Middle East too critical, for the way forward to be determined by the executive branch alone.