The mass uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East are evolving in ways that few people would have ever imagined. Rebellion was a novelty in itself, the crisis contagion was unexpected and both the short- and long-run consequences of the “Arab tidal wave” (as Kurt Volker, former US ambassador to NATO, labeled it) are far from being clear. The situation in Tunisia and Egypt remains fluid, countries like Jordan and Oman undertook some reform and the conflict in Libya deteriorates day by day.
On the policy side, many concerns have emerged: from regional security to financial investment and energy supply, from potential democratization to the spread of radical Islamism, from migration flows to refugee assistance.
On the analytical side, the 2011 revolts appear to be a historical watershed for the future of the Middle East and international affairs; as were the 1989 revolutions in the collapse of Communism in Central Eastern Europe and the spread of American-led globalization. Yet, many scholars stress that, unlike 1989, today’s Western world looks quite ineffective in shaping the direction of events. This is backed up by the fact that protestors showed a lack of any ideological or symbolic reference either in favor of or against the United States and Israel – not to mention the EU. In other words, today’s demonstrations are genuinely endogenous and without the spur of any exogenous force, as was the case in 1989. For many commentators this proves the relative decline of the US as key global player in the Middle East and the fact that, for the time being, nobody else has succeeded in replacing Washington in the region – not even al Qaeda or other extremist groups.
Despite this, it would be a risky interpretation to disregard the influence that Washington still retains in the area and ignore the change that the Obama administration is bringing to American foreign policy. The “unipolar moment” is over, but the speed and flexibility of the US in reacting to new challenges and its influence on international affairs – which is far greater than that of the other great powers – still make it a central actor. If we divide the Arab revolts into two phases, the US value added will emerge in more clear terms. At the beginning, when protests arose in Tunis and then reached Cairo, everyone was taken by surprise: in particular, European diplomacies were stuck between realpolitik (sustain their long-term relations with Ben Ali and Mubarak in order to maintain the status quo) and liberal idealism (support the Arab people in the quest for regime change). A second stage developed when Egyptian police started violent repression, with President Obama being the first world leader to call for an “orderly transition” (2 February 2011). From that moment on, Obama took the lead in the attempt to prevent the crisis in Egypt from escalating into civil war and, in the case of Libya, to prevent any Somali or Afghan-like implosion of state sovereignty by putting pressure on Gheddafi to resign and, in all likelihood, by providing intelligence assistance to the opponents. This increased diplomatic activity aims at squaring the circle between two recurrent – but often conflicting – aspects of American national interest in the Middle East: regional stability and democratic development, coupled with the struggle against terrorism and extremism. This is not an easy task.
As a matter of fact, in the last few weeks US foreign policy has started a new chapter of the nascent “Obama doctrine”, a combination of pragmatism and internationalism able to serve the goals of hard power while accomplishing the objectives of soft power in times of crisis. The President himself defined it as “tough-minded diplomacy”, a “results-oriented” inclination through the necessary means of a more efficient collective action led by the US. As The Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland pointed out, the Obama doctrine is based on two main features: “a repudiation of the legacy of his predecessor”, namely neo-con aggressive unilateralism; and “signs of imaginative thinking”, that being a more benign and open-minded attitude towards regional powers (i.e. Brazil, the EU, India and Russia) and multilateral institutions (i.e. the G20, NATO, and the UN). As many analysts argue, the US is trying to translate in viable practical terms what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton likes to call “smart power”. It is an updated version of the traditional “stick and carrot” approach, where the stick is a sharper use of military means (i.e. more cover actions than ground force operations), and the carrot is, even for the time being, the inexhaustible appeal of the US balance of trade deficit for private and public foreign investors.
Therefore, although an analysis of American foreign policy does reveal weaknesses and inconsistencies, these are less profound than what is commonly perceived. There are two basic reasons for this. First, in regards to the difficulty of the US in attracting Arab youth through soft power, it should not be forgotten that these new generations are not familiar with any sort of political socialization. In most Middle Eastern countries, approximately 50% of the population is below the age of 30, in some cases even below 25. This means that this section of the population was born when their leaders were already in office: Ben Ali took power in 1987, Mubarak in 1981, and Gheddafi in 1969. Add to this that, unlike other autocratic cases, such as the Soviet bloc where active mobilization and indoctrination were a necessary requirement, in the Middle East political education has been avoided, if not contrasted. This is a crucial difference when comparing North Africa in 2011 with Central Eastern Europe in 1989: Communism did not allow individual freedom, but provided some degree of collective development also by teaching Western political rules and values, whereas the Arab regimes – which we used to call “moderate” until a couple of months ago – did this only in trivial ways. This is to say that all forms and waves of democratization – therefore, of American soft power projection – will really be successful only if the recipients are somehow ready to be democratized. It is not about the usual refrain over the alleged undemocratic inclination of Arab or Muslim societies, but mostly over the impossibility for the West (i.e. the US) to deploy its liberal and democratic power of attraction everywhere and at anytime: Latin America, for instance, democratized differently from Central-Eastern Europe. This process can hardly be replicated in the same way in the Middle East. In short, blaming the Obama administration for America’s inability to offer a clear reference point for the new Arab generations, as it was for Soviet-ruled Europeans, is to miss the point.
The second reason is revealed in how the US has chosen to pursue a more courageous foreign policy in the management of the current situation in Libya, where the Obama-Clinton duo plays on three separate, but not truly separable tables: the UN, NATO and Libya itself. The administration is aware that unilateral military action is ideologically and economically hard to set in motion, even if the goal is just to contain the internal conflict in terms of human lives and refugee flows. Thus, Washington activated all formal channels for institutional (i.e. legitimate and legitimizing) crisis management, such as the UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice and the NATO Secretary General. This is a first-step strategy to put pressure on Gheddafi, as well as the international community, by proposing the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya and threatening the international prosecution of Gheddafi, as happened to Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.
In short, the United States seem to be taking the lead, once again, in tackling an acute crisis in Europe’s immediate periphery – despite the recognition of its relative decline, the specific challenges posed by the regional context, and the non-interventionist inclinations of the current administration.
The Libyan crisis, in particular, is full or risks and traps, and caution is in order: yet, it may turn out to be a great opportunity for the Obama administration to employ the full potential of its smart power.