The U.S. Role in the Arab Spring

February 6, 2012

This week, core American values are front and center in the Middle East, where activists are risking arrest in Egypt and death in Syria in seeking to build their own democracies.  These values are intertwined with important U.S. interests – regional unity in dealing with Iran, the free flow of energy, the security of Israel and other regional allies. Wise American leaders will understand the potential and the challenge of the Arab Awakening – not as an “anti-Christian Spring” or as something that does not concern us, but, as Secretary Clinton said last November at National Democratic Institute: “with so much that can go wrong, and so much that can go right, support for emerging Arab democracies is an investment we cannot afford not to make.”

On Syria, U.S. policy focused on the need for change from the Assad regime. On Saturday, both China and Russia voted against an Arab League-sponsored resolution at the UN that was aimed at moving Assad in the direction of a peaceful transition to democracy in his violence-wracked country. Today, the U.S. closed its embassy in Damascus, as the focus moves to what’s next. As the Los Angeles Times reports, “Without U.N. action, Clinton vowed that Washington and allied nations seeking Assad’s ouster would work to increase diplomatic pressure, bolster humanitarian aid and lighten economic sanctions. The top U.S. diplomat called on allies ‘to support the opposition’s peaceful political plans for change.’” American calls for increased action come as the Assad regime continues its brutal crackdown. As the New York Times reports, “[O]pposition groups reported that Syrian government forces shelled the battered city of Homs for another day striking a makeshift clinic and killing at least 17 people in a mounting toll that has made the city the epicenter of the uprising, which began last March. The city, Syria’s third-largest, has emerged as an arena of some of the revolt’s worst violence, with scores dead there in just the past few days.”

But as Marc Lynch writes in Foreign Policy, military intervention still has significant drawbacks: “No advocate of American military intervention has yet offered any suggestions of how specific actions might actually produce the desired goals given the nature of the fighting. Air strikes and no-fly zones can not tip the balance in a civil war environment fought in densely populated urban areas where the U.S. lacks reliable human intelligence; recall that an air campaign took six months to succeed in Libya under much more favorable conditions. Safe area and humanitarian corridor proposals remain impractical. Advocates of military action should not be allowed to dodge the question of the likely escalation to ground forces — which virtually everyone agrees would be disastrous — after the alternatives fail. And there is zero political appetite for a military intervention: it is difficult to miss that every single speaker at the United Nations, including the Arab League and Qatar, explicitly ruled one out.” [AP, 2/6/12. LA Times, 2/5/12. NY Times, 2/6/12. Marc Lynch, 2/5/12]

In Egypt, tensions with the U.S. as Egyptians try to consolidate the revolution and put the country’s economy back on track. As the New York Times reports, “Egypt’s military-led government said Sunday that it would put 19 Americans and two dozen others on trial in a politically charged criminal investigation into the foreign financing of nonprofit groups that has shaken the 30-year alliance between the United States and Egypt. The decision raises tensions between the two allies to a new peak at a decisive moment in Egypt’s political transition after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak a year ago. Angry protesters are battling security forces in the streets of the capital and other major cities. The economy is in urgent need of billions of dollars in foreign aid. And the military rulers are in the final stages of negotiations with the Islamists who dominate the new Parliament over the terms of a transfer of power that could set the country’s course for decades.”

U.S. officials have strongly condemned Egypt’s decision to try Americans doing peaceful work. As the AP reports, “The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is keeping up the Obama administration’s pressure on Egypt to release 19 Americans facing trial on allegations of encouraging unrest in the country. Susan Rice tells the ‘CBS This Morning’ show the U.S. citizens involved in the dispute have been working with efforts to build a more democratic society and ‘have done absolutely nothing wrong.’ Her statement comes in the wake of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s warning Saturday that Egypt could face a cutoff of U.S. financial aid because of the problem.” [NY Times, 2/5/12. AP, 2/6/12]

What We’re Reading

One U.S. Army lieutenant colonel is making the rounds in Washington and in defense circles with doubts about rosy Pentagon reports on progress in the Afghanistan War.

Mexico’s ruling conservative party nominated a woman for the first time to run for president in July’s election.

Egypt’s ruling military council will try 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, accusing them of funding street protests against the government.

Rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas agreed to let Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas lead an interim joint government ahead of elections.

Greece’s government agreed to deep spending cuts, but failed to complete a full agreement that would allow the country to definitely avoid a March bankruptcy.

The UN announced that the famine in Somalia has ended due to improved harvests and humanitarian assistance.

A 6.8-magnitude earthquake rattled the Philippines, killing at least 12 people.

Nigeria finds itself under siege from militants in the south as well as the north, as the  rebel group MEND ended a yearlong truce with the Nigerian government by attacking an oil pipeline in the Niger Delta region.

Romania’s government collapsed after four weeks of protests against austerity measures.

Three Tibetan herders self-immolated in Sichuan Province amidst ongoing protests against the Chinese government.

Commentary of the Day

NSN Advisory Board member Charles Kupchan writes that the challenge US foreign policy faces is transitioning the world, not running it single-handedly.

Joseph Cirincione explains how President Obama can square U.S. defense strategy and budget concerns by pursuing revamped criteria for nuclear weapons.

James Hoge thinks Europe could use another Marshall Plan.

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