The Politics of the So-Called “Arab Winter”
If the Arab spring turns into an “Arab winter,” as Romney put it, and tumult spreads across the region, a backlash could certainly build against Obama’s handling of the uprising, leaving Romney to profit politically.
There have been multiple uprisings around the region, and Obama’s handling of them has varied from country to country. It would make things much easier to analyze if there were one uprising happening and just one set of U.S. responses to judge, but that isn’t the case. Let’s quickly review what has happened, what the U.S. role has been, and whether the public has much interest in the uprisings.
In Tunisia, where the first successful uprising occurred, Obama’s response has been a fairly hands-off, sympathetic one. The U.S. wasn’t going to do anything to prop up Ben Ali, but it wasn’t going to do much in support of the protesters, either. This position of “not taking sides” was criticized by those in the U.S. eager to have the administration throw our full support to the protesters, but most Americans seem not to have noticed or cared one way or the other.
The U.S. has obviously been more involved in Libya, which I still believe was a mistake as far as U.S. interests were concerned. That intervention has had significant destabilizing effects in the region, most especially in nearby Mali. Almost no one is paying much attention to the war’s effects on Mali. Most Americans didn’t want to intervene in Libya, but a slight majority supported the war once it began. The war began as one of the least popular military actions in recent decades, but because there were no American casualties and no prolonged U.S. military role in Libya it never became a deeply unpopular conflict. The U.S./NATO involvement in Libya’s fighting ended last year, and there does not appear to be any intention to send more Americans to Libya except for securing U.S. installations in the country. Had it not been for the attack on the consulate, the vast majority of Americans would have continued to ignore ongoing insecurity and violence in Libya just as they have done for the last year.
As for Egypt, Washington accepted Mubarak’s more or less unavoidable overthrow after two weeks of protests, tolerated the SCAF coup government for a year, and apparently did not interfere with the election of a president from the Muslim Brotherhood. The U.S. acquiesced in Bahrain’s crackdown on its protesters, and did the same when the Saudis and the GCC intervened militarily to shore up the Bahraini monarchy. Obama has lent some rhetorical and limited material support tot he Syrian opposition, which hawks deride as far too little, but two-thirds of Americans want nothing to do with Syria’s conflict.
Many Americans may not be happy with Islamist political success in Egypt, and they may deplore the violence in Syria, but I suspect most Americans see these things as reasons to become less involved in the affairs of these countries rather than an invitation for more activism. One thing that has suffered most in the last two years is the illusion that the U.S. has significant control over events in the region. We don’t, and we never had as much control as we thought we did, and it’s mostly not a bad thing.
The most common criticism of the Obama administration’s response to these uprisings has been that it has been “too slow” to lend support to protesters. That has been one of the frequent charges from the Romney campaign and from other leading Republican hawks. However, if these uprisings are gradually leading to a so-called “Arab winter,” a reluctance to back protest movements won’t be perceived as a liability. Despite their best efforts to have things both ways, Republicans cannot coherently attack Obama for being insufficiently supportive of protests and overly supportive of majoritarian Islamist movements. Democratists want to keep pretending that they can advocate for popular government while still rejecting the empowerment of Islamist parties, but this isn’t tenable. They can’t fault Obama for abandoning the “freedom agenda” on the one hand (which he did) and then for being too much in favor of it (which he hasn’t been). Democracy promotion is the public’s lowest foreign policy priority, so it seems unlikely that American disillusionment with involvement in the Near East could work to the benefit of the candidate urging greater and deeper involvement.