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In late 2010, a wave of protest and civil unrest swept through nearly every Arab nation. Dubbed the Arab Spring, the protest’s whipped through the region like one of their legendary sand storms, and swept rulers in the countries Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen out of power. In their wake have been uprisings in Bahrain, Oman, Algeria, and Syria.
The term “Arab Spring” is meant to be an analogy for the thawing out of the average Arab citizens acceptance of rigid and authoritarian regimens. This is more a hope than a reality, and the events have exposed America’s weakness and limits in foreign policy regarding the Arab region.
From the start, the Obama administration has had a schizophrenic response to the events of the Arab spring. The protesters in Iran, arguably the start of the Arab spring, got very little, if any, support from the U.S. Though President Obama was near-silent toward Iran, the President was quite forceful in telling President Mubarak of Egypt he had to go. Odd, given that Mubarak was the only true ally of the U.S. in that area.
He might have been a dictator, but he was our dictator. Now, the Muslim brotherhood stands poised to take political power, just as Hamas did in Palestine. As Libyans began to fight against Gaddafi, the U.S. took a position of leading from behind in helping to enforce a no-fly zone, and providing other low-key military assistance to the rebels, while Syrian rebels were getting, and still are getting, slaughtered by the hundreds with only words of support from the international community.
Opponents of President Obama believe his ambivalence is another sign of weakness in his administration, but you can argue that he’s politically stuck. The stark realty is that Iran, Syria, and every other situation in the Middle East exposes an ugly truth about foreign policy for that region; there is not much that the U.S. can do.
Americans, the citizens not the politicians, are a strange lot. We cannot stomach human rights violations wherever they occur: China, North Korea, Darfur, South Africa, or the Middle East nations. When we see 8500 innocent civilians killed in Syria, we feel the need to do something to stop it.
However, the only way to stop killing on that scale in a country a world away is through force. We are either going to send troops in, or we have to arm the rebels and lend military support similar to what was done in Libya. Unfortunately, the American public does not want to do that, and therefore neither does President Obama.
Instead, we get empty statements from our President and other world leaders about how President Assad must give up power. Really? According to whom? Every time a statement like that is issued, I hear President Assad saying, “So what? Who are you to tell me what to do,” and “Okay, well make me leave.”
Even if President Assad is not saying those exact words, they are certainly the sentiments of the reality on ground. Dictators are either forced from power by their own people or forced out by an outside force. In either case, force is what is needed for changes.
Unless we force him from power, there is nothing we can do. And that’s the problem every President must face at times. Situations in the world that we would like to alter, but the choices on the table on how to do it are not good choices. Whether we are talking about halting the killing in Syria, or stopping Iran from going nuclear, force is the only thing that is ultimately going to work. And going that route is fraught with other implications and unintended consequences.
Diplomacy is its own minefield. It takes a long time to work, which is not exactly good for the people getting shot at in Syria. And an unspoken assumption in diplomacy is that the person across the table is a rational actor. The heads of oppressive governments are seldom rational, and rationality, as Americans and Europeans measure it, is completely absent from the Muslim world.
In America, for instance, ostensibly everyone gets a say while the Middle East is fraught with authoritarian discipline, often guided by religious doctrine; a “do this, or there will be consequences” approach. Couple that with the general principle of dictatorship — doing what is necessary to stay in power — and you have a volatile mix that Americans may never understand.
President Reagan, in his memoirs, has famously lamented getting the U.S. involved in Lebanon. His opinion being that if he had to do it again, he would not, because, we (America) do not understand the Middle East. This remains true to a large degree today. President Obama is in charge now, but if it were President McCain, or if it turns to be a Republican candidate in 2012, not much will change.
Force is what is necessary, and we cannot send troops into every Muslim country that decides to start shooting up their citizenry. Does anyone really see a President Romney sending in ground troops to Syria? No, the best we can hope for is a President, present or future, who can explain that some things we cannot affect, and that the things we can, may require force.
We will have to make hard choices about what is in our national interest, preventing Iran from a nuclear bomb, and things that, while sickening, do not affect the U.S. directly, like what is happening in Syria. The only question remaining is whether the voting public will understand and accept those distinctions.