Obama’s “Arab Spring” dodge

In his interview on Sixty Minutes, President Obama was asked whether recent events in the Middle East have given him any pause about his support for the governments that came to power following the Arab Spring. Obama began his response by saying that the question “presumes that somehow we could have stopped this wave of change.”

Actually, the question presumes no such thing. Even if the U.S. cannot prevent the rise of a particular government, we still retain the option of not supporting it. There have always been governments the U.S. has declined to have relations with or, at a minimum, has declined to support financially.

Moreover, our alternatives are not limited to trying to “stop change” and sitting things out. We can attempt to influence the change or its pace.

In Iraq, for example, there was always going to come a time when the regime of Saddam Hussein or his heirs would fall and when Sunnis and Shiites would clash. Because the U.S. was on the ground when Saddam fell (having toppled him), we were able to influence Sunni-Shiite clash. In fact, we were able, with great difficulty, to prevent the clash from severing the nation and to help bring about a constitutionally based government in which power is shared. (Unfortunately, our subsequent unwillingness to remain engaged may jeopardize this work).

Iraq is an extreme case, of course. No one argues that we should attempt to influence events in countries like Egypt through the deployment of troops. However, we can still attempt to influence the “wave of change” by working with factions within these countries with whom we share a common vision, or at least a common interest.

This is what Obama seems to want to do in Egypt. Unfortunately, the faction he’s working with most closely with happens to be that of President Morsi, who represents the Muslim Brotherhood. Obama may not have “any pause” about this approach, but the American people should.

Obama had other options. The Egyptian military initially stood as a potential brake on Egypt’s rush into radicalism. The military could not have “stopped [the] wave of change” in Egypt, but possibly could have slowed things down. This would have given forces other than the Muslim Brotherhood a chance to develop. As Obama told CBS, the problems we see following the Arab Spring are due to the fact that “in a lot of these [countries] the one organizing principle has been Islam.” Why not try to buy time for other “organizing principles” to take shape?

From all that appears, the Obama administration rejected this option, choosing instead actively to discourage the military from curbing Morsi. For better or for worse, this was Obama’s decision, and he should be expected to defend it. He shouldn’t be allowed to pretend that he has no option other than to support a radical Islamist regime in Egypt or anywhere else.

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