As Arab Spring democracy uprisings spread across the Middle East, President Barack Obama’s response to the political unrest has been to voice support for people seeking representative governments but to limit the role the United States will play to shape those efforts.
The president’s philosophy of limited engagement is facing perhaps its toughest test in Egypt, where the nation’s first democratically elected president was ousted by military forces with deep, decades-long ties to the U.S.
Obama’s resistance to suspending U.S. support for Egypt’s military leaves the White House with little leverage, effectively relegating the president to the role of a bystander issuing strongly worded statements. The U.S. position has also stirred up anti-American sentiment in Egypt, with Morsi supporters accusing the U.S. of failing to live up to its own democratic values by allowing an elected leader to be ousted.
The president insists that the U.S. stands with Egyptians seeking a democratic government. But he says America cannot determine Egypt’s future and will not “take sides with any political party or political figure.”
Steven Cook, a Middle East analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Obama’s “middle-splitting” approach for Egypt undercuts U.S. support for democracy in the region.
“The idea that we can influence the trajectory of the politics is foolish,” Cook said. “But not to have been consistent in emphasizing our own values in this situation is a mistake. We should stick to the principles of democracy and recognition for the rule of law.”
However, the U.S. relationship with Egypt has long required Washington to ignore the country’s repressive politics in exchange for regional stability. For 30 years the U.S. propped up Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak in part to ensure that he maintained Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, one of only two such accords in the Arab world.
But Obama abandoned Mubarak in 2011, when millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand an end to his rule. Mubarak eventually resigned, clearing the way for Egypt’s first democratic elections and inspiring pro-democracy protests in other countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
The U.S. has consistently voiced support for the popular uprisings. In Libya, the U.S. joined allies in setting up a no-fly zone to help opposition forces oust longtime leader Moammar Gahdafi.
And in Syria, the U.S. has levied economic sanctions and approved light weaponry for rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s government, though it has done little to stop the civil war that has left more than 100,000 people dead.
But throughout the Arab Spring, the White House has been wary of getting too deeply involved in setting up new governments in the region.
The president’s approach was shaped in part by his opposition to the Iraq War, a conflict that was first built as an anti-terrorism campaign but became a U.S.-led exercise in democracy-building. Obama oversaw the end of the war in his first term and has since tried to keep the war-weary, economically strapped U.S. out of other lengthy foreign conflicts.
Obama’s philosophy is also driven in part by concern that the governments formed after the Arab Spring uprisings may be more detrimental to American interests than the autocratic regimes they replace.