The current quagmire in the middle east is the result of over a half-century of western governments actively but at times covertly propping up oppressive dictatorships in order to secure their interests in the region (translated, oil). The Obama administration is having the sh*t hit the fan on its watch though the seeds for this mess were sewn by over 50 years of U.S and broader western policy in the region being less about human rights and democracy and more about stability, in the interest of not disrupting U.S access to oil.
Some claim this policy was based in part on the assumption that democracy could not take root in the Arab world and as such the only option was to choose the least oppressive dictator to support in the interest of stability. A more skeptical critic might perceive these policies as based more on the most direct path to securing Western access to oil, with the suppression of freedom and human rights simply a price worth paying. Either way, the stability in the region is now up in the air because, after decades of subjugation, the people of the Middle-East have at last gotten sick of their oppressors and finally shaken off the shackles of fear. However, this has left the West in quite a pickle as it struggles to adapt to the new landscape.
The old hypocritical policies of talking loudly about democracy, freedom, human rights and justice while propping up violent and oppressive dictators is now less tenable. At the very least with today’s 24/7 news cycle, it’s harder to maintain such a policy away from the media glare. It would require a bolder and more public hypocrisy than the current U.S administration seems willing to countenance. And yet for some time, it appeared the Obama administration was also not quite ready to abandon the old policies that placed secure access to mid-eastern oil above freedom and justice; it seemed uncertain about whether to intervene, and it has been argued that Obama allowed the French and British to take the lead, thus appearing weak and indecisive. The administration continues to receive criticism from both the left and the right: critics on the left, none more vociferous than Michael Moore, argue that the Libyan intervention parallels George Bush’s Iraq invasion and flies in the face of Obama’s Nobel peace prize; critics on the right bemoan what they perceive as Obama’s lack of leadership on Libya, with O’Reilly arguing that though Obama was right to go into Libya, he was not strong, loud or quick enough to intervene, while Limbaugh laments that the days when U.S foreign policy was based on U.S interests are gone, with Obama invading Libya to “protect European oil”. It seems Obama’s approach has successfully frustrated those on both extremes of the political spectrum.
I myself criticized the Obama administration in the first few days of the Libyan crisis for what seemed like a slow and pensive approach which seemed in danger of passively watching while letting the chips fell wherever chance and Gaddafi’s malice sent them. I felt Obama needed to decide whether the U.S was going to back those pushing for freedom (perhaps by pressuring the regional powers that it once propped up to move towards reform and away from their old oppressive ways, or possibly by actively assisting the rebels/freedom fighters), or whether it was going to continue the age old U.S policy of supporting up dictatorial regimes in the interest of stability in the region and maintaining, at least for the short term, the uninterrupted flow of oil. Without deciding on which side of the new and rapidly emerging landscape of middle-eastern politics it planned to be on, I said, Obama’s administration was runing the risk of riding the fence and ending up on the losing side, no matter which side the winners emerged on.
However, in tonight’s speech, President Obama seemed to indicate a long-awaited articulation of his vision of U.S foreign policy in the face of such threats of genocide despite limited, direct U.S interest. He acknowledged that U.S military force must first and foremost support American interests, but also made the case that such grave humanitarian crises were threats to U.S interests and values. Obama seems to have cast his lot on the side of freedom and human rights, despite the criticism that such interventions are not in U.S interests:
“..Given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right…
“There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are. Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security -– responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us. They’re problems worth solving.
And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help. In such cases, we should not be afraid to act -– but the burden of action should not be America’s alone. As we have in Libya, our task is instead to mobilize the international community for collective action. Because contrary to the claims of some, American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.”
It’s quite a vision of the U.S role in the world. It’s a vision in stark contrast to that of the last half-century. This vision sees the U.S as leading a team of allies rather than going it alone or commanding others to follow. It’s an approach that is based on coalition building and international consensus, and if it can be effectively led (a fairly big if), it may lift some of the pressures on the U.S to intervene unilaterally wherever a humanitarian crisis threatens, without turning a blind eye to the suffering of millions (as was done in Darfur, among others). Of course, the one question left unanswered remains how the Obama administration will respond to other situations in which oppressive rulers threaten genocide and violence against innocent civilians. How will the U.S respond should the protests in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria escalate to further violence as their leaders attempt to crack down on revolting citizens? This remains to be seen.