Until the last few weeks, foreign policy remained in the background as President Obama and Mitt Romney duked it out over the economy. Then came the storming of U.S. embassies in Egypt, Sudan, and Yemen, and the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other diplomatic staffers in Benghazi, Libya. Suddenly foreign policy became a flash point, with Romney accusing Obama of sympathizing with the rioters and failing to protect American interests, and the president countering that Romney has “a tendency to shoot first and aim later.”
Despite the rhetoric, when it comes to the question of how the U.S. should handle the ongoing transformation of the Arab world, the differences between the candidates have more to do with style than substance. Romney backed Obama’s decision to call for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step down in February 2011 and endorsed NATO’s intervention in Libya. As the recent riots unfolded in Cairo, Romney’s advisers said he would condition $1 billion in aid to Egypt on whether the country’s new government took steps to protect the U.S. Embassy; Obama sent a similar warning by calling Egypt “neither an ally nor an enemy.” More broadly, both Obama and Romney adhere to the idea that American interests are best served through the promotion of democracy in the Middle East, a strategy that became known as the “Freedom Agenda” under George W. Bush and gained momentum after the Arab Spring of 2011.
Yet whether that approach has made the region any more stable, or amenable to U.S. influence, is doubtful. The attacks on American facilities in Libya and elsewhere “raise troubling questions about the whole experience of the Arab awakening and why security has gotten so far out of control,” says Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.
In the aftermath of the 2001 attacks on the U.S., a consensus took hold in America’s foreign policy establishment: Victory in the war on terrorism required not just the liquidation of al-Qaeda but the wholesale reform of Islamic societies. The overriding goal that guided U.S. policy for half a century—preserving regional stability and the balance of power—was tossed aside. In his 2005 inaugural address, Bush declared: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” Later that year, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Cairo, “We are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.” If the region’s autocratic leaders failed to set their people free, the U.S. wouldn’t hesitate to do it for them.
This thinking led in part to the invasion of Iraq, a war opposed by liberal Democrats including Barack Obama. Iraq’s descent into chaos, as well as the electoral triumphs of extremist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, caused the Bush administration to retreat from its calls for sweeping change. After becoming president, Obama initially downplayed the Freedom Agenda. In his own speech in Cairo, in 2009, Obama stressed his “commitment … to governments that reflect the will of the people,” but also said “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” With the emergence of the Arab Spring, however, he shed his realist instincts and embraced the project of democratizing the Middle East. To different degrees, his administration backed the ouster of Mubarak, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. The idea that the U.S. is better off with democratically elected governments in power than with autocratic ones became a bipartisan article of faith.
Yet from a national security perspective, the results of the Arab Spring have been mixed at best. The downfall of secular dictators in Tunisia and Egypt have led to the election of Islamist parties considered moderate by U.S. policymakers only in comparison with their hard-line rivals. The coordinated attack that killed Stevens showed how terrorists in Libya have taken advantage of the collapse of Qaddafi’s regime. Arab resentment and suspicion of the U.S.—fueled by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Obama administration’s secret drone campaign, and lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute—still run high. Despite America’s support for the revolution in Egypt, only 19 percent of Egyptians have a favorable view of the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center’s survey of global public opinion. That’s down from 30 percent in 2006.
“Things were never going to be easy for the U.S. in the short and medium term,” says Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Most people expected these revolutions would bring to power groups that would be less friendly to the U.S. than the dictators with whom we had inside deals. In the long term, we assumed that ultimately democratic governments would be better for American interests. But that’s just a hunch. Nobody knows that for sure.”
For that reason, Cook says, “There is a certain logic to pulling back” from assertive attempts to remake the region as the U.S. would like to see it.
That’s already happening: The administration has refrained from pressuring allies such as Jordan, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia to move toward representative government. Despite Romney’s criticism of Obama for “temporizing” on Syria and failing to support the opposition there sooner, neither candidate supports the idea of intervening in that conflict with military force.
The longer the turmoil in the Arab world persists, the more the U.S. will need to accept the limits of what it can achieve there. No matter which candidate wins in November, the headiness of the Freedom Agenda is likely to give way to an era of diminished expectations in the Middle East. “We can’t say for sure that U.S. interests will forever be secured if these countries are making the transition to democracy—if they even make a full transition to democracy. We won’t know until we get there,” says Cook. “But it’s not as if we can do anything about it.”