There was an awkward moment at this year’s Munich Security Conference. Demonstrators in Egypt had been making their dislike of the Mubarak regime clear for several weeks, while, the US had just called on Mubarak to step down and hand over power immediately. But on 5 February 2011, Frank Wisner, whom the administration had sent to try to convince Mubarak to step down, surprised everyone by praising Mubarak and considering him the right man to manage the transition. Immediately afterwards, the White House disavowed Wisner’s comments.
This incident offered a glimpse into the internal disputes within the US government over how to deal with the latest developments in the MENA region. Changing US policy toward authoritarian regimes has been like turning an oil tanker. Barack Obama wanted to see the demonstrators in Tahrir Square succeed. The White House saw it as an opportunity to follow up with concrete steps on his speech in Cairo in 2009. But this was not so clear for other parts of the D.C. political establishment – including both Republicans and Democrats – who over the years had built close ties with the regime on political, military and commercial levels.
For Mr. Obama, it has been crucial to avoid any suspicions being raised of a US leadership role on the ground, be it in Iran or Egypt. It is the protesters who should be leading the process. But this controversial 'leading from behind' approach has not prevented the US from attempting to influence events on the ground diplomatically (Egypt) or militarily (Libya). Yet, at the same time, this approach falls short of a comprehensive strategy designed to offer an answer to all remaining autocrats in the region. Saudi Arabia wasn’t mentioned at all in Mr. Obama’s Middle East speech in May. The very likely rejection of a Palestinian statehood bid at the UN by the US will further damage Mr. Obama’s credibility among Arabs.
The US is currently facing a tremendous loss of influence in the region. And the actions of the countries in transition are becoming less predictable. Moreover, The White House and the Israeli government disagree over how to address the conflict with the Palestinians. And European allies, despite NATO support in Libya, led by France and Britain, are busy among themselves and tired of developing new ideas for Euro-Mediterranean cooperation. Their discourse about the Arab Spring is predominantly defensive, focusing on how to avoid further migration from North Africa. Turkey, the most important Western ally in the region after Israel, is trying to fill the vacuum. It wants to play the role of regional leader, taking a hard stance on Israel while offering a successful development model combining Islam and democracy with economic progress.
But the US can stay relevant if it adopts a longer-term perspective. Beyond contacts with government officials as part of day-to-day diplomacy, it is high time to strengthen ties with civil society activists in the Arab world to get a better sense of the desires of those societies. Calling for foreign aid cuts in the event of certain election outcomes, as advocated by some members of the US Congress, falls short of understanding the situation in transforming countries. The West’s assistance is needed in the years to come to help build democratic institutions and the basis for rule of law. An important signal to these countries would be also to overcome the huge imbalance between military and non-military aid.