The mullahs are every bit as repressive and corrupt as Mubarak was, for example, and the Saudis and Egyptians continue to wonder, naturally, why the U.S. was so forgiving and conciliatory to its enemies, and so harsh to its allies [bold mine-DL].
Historians may wonder the same thing. And they may further note that Obama’s passion for democracy in the Sunni world and his tolerance of repression in the Shi’a world both haven’t led to much in the way of progress toward either stability or democracy anywhere in the region.
Mead’s interpretation of administration actions in the region is a very familiar, conventional one, and it is also wrong. As many of us remember very well, Obama was widely faulted here in the U.S. in late 2010 and early 2011 for being far too slow to endorse popular protests in Egypt and elsewhere. The same demands to “speak out” that occasioned the administration response to the Green movement protests happened again, but it was at a much greater volume than before. There was some back-and-forth inside the administration for weeks over whether to call for Mubarak to step down. When Obama finally did so, it was because Mubarak’s downfall seemed unavoidable. Further, at that point he was effectively siding with the Egyptian military, whose leaders saw Mubarak as a liability to be cast aside. Once Mubarak was gone, Obama aligned the U.S. with whoever was in power in Cairo, and when that meant going along with Sisi’s military coup that is what he did. Obama’s “passion for democracy in the Sunni world” has been so great that his administration has maintained ties and military aid for a coup government in contravention of U.S. law after it gunned down hundreds of people on the street. Obama has been so harsh to the Saudis that he has silently acquiesced in the GCC crackdown in Bahrain and backed their destabilizing actions in Syria and Yemen. The fantasy that Obama has been “harsh to…allies” may sound credible to paranoid Saudi royals, but in the real world it is nonsense. Far from being “harsh” to regional clients, he has much more often indulged them in their worst behavior.
Earlier in the post, Mead claims that Obama’s response to the Green movement protests amounts to “collusion” with Iran’s government to “destroy” a “promising experiment in the country’s democracy” much like the U.S. did in 1953. Of course, there was no collusion of any kind in 2009-2010. Indeed, the regime’s crackdown derailed Obama’s initial efforts at engagement. But that doesn’t exhaust the sheer stupidity of Mead’s claim. The administration is being faulted here for “failing” to hijack a domestic Iranian political movement for its own purposes. Had Obama done as his critics want, he would have immediately discredited the movement in the eyes of most Iranians and thereby helped the Iranian government, and in so doing he would have earned the lasting resentment of a new generation of Iranians. Instead, the the U.S. deliberately refused to repeat the interference in Iranian politics that produced so much resentment towards the U.S. in Iran over the decades, and it seems to have done so with the understanding that Iranians oppose U.S. meddling in their affairs regardless of their views of their own government. It was precisely because the administration was trying to avoid repeating the error from 1953 that it largely refrained from interfering. That didn’t prevent the Green movement from failing, but the point is that there was nothing the U.S. could have done that would have caused it to prevail. The U.S. doesn’t have much of an ability to “shape” political developments in countries where the U.S. has considerable influence, and in Iran the U.S. has practically none at all. The idea that there was anything the U.S. could have done to change the outcome of Iran’s internal political dispute for the better is ludicrously false.