Since World War II, US foreign policy has been built around a single concept: to ensure the stability and prosperity of the Free World and to stop nations, or groups of nations, from endangering this peace and prosperity.
Like a game of chess, it was important to put important and powerful pieces deep within foreign territory to act as stabilisers, weapons aimed against “the enemies of freedom,” to deter warfare and nuclear holocaust or to respond to crises that had already started. It is easy to criticise some of the moves made in this chess game, to label them as imperialism (the ouster of a democratic government in Iran in the 1950s comes to mind), or to point out blunders (too many examples to mention). At the end of the day, however, the US had been fairly successful in preventing world-wide warfare or economic instability. Right or wrong. over the course of 60 years, successive US administrations were content to support stable regimes if it furthered these ends.
Both the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia had been staunch allies of the West, propped up by the United States for decades. Tunisia and Egypt had offered the region stability, had both been partners in a global war against terrorism, and both had resisted hostility towards Israel. In the U.S. battle against the threat of communism, and after that the danger of Islamic extremism, the United States and its European allies viewed the stability of the Middle East as a key factor in protecting freedom and prosperity for the entire world.
Obviously, some of the moves in the US chess-game have had unintended consequences.
The flames of revolution swept over the Middle East and North Africa in January and February. As an inspired world huddled around news websites or television sets to watch the pro-democracy wave wash over the region, many were struck by the video showing tear gas canisters stamped with “MADE IN USA” being fired at peaceful Egyptian civilians. How could it be that the only visible role that the “land of the free” was playing was the manufacturing of the tools of oppression? How was it that the United States had helped establish these dictatorships that stoop in the way of the inspirational struggle for freedom and democracy, ideals that make up the foundation of America?
It is clear that something has to change. Pursuing a policy of imperialism to provide stability or prosperity, justified or not, is an obsolete and counterproductive idea. While the United States has been playing chess, driving further away from home territory in order to establish positions of power, the people of the world were playing a different game: the Chinese game Go.
In Go, pieces are lost when an opponent surrounds your own, and pieces are gained when you surround the opponent. Instantaneously, a position of great power, deep within enemy territory, can become a huge liability as the opponent closes in around you. While the US had helped place the chess pieces of dictatorial regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, the people of these nations, the Go pieces, were growing in discontent at their own lack of freedom and democracy. In a manner of weeks, the powerful Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes had been toppled, and the US faced the prospect of a Tunisia and an Egypt led by disillusioned and malcontent freedom fighters. The game had changed, the US was losing, and to make matters worse, the West had been part of the problem, not part of the solution.
The Obama Administration seems to have foreseen this needed transformation in foreign policy. Candidate Obama spoke of the need to pursue a “less arrogant” foreign policy, one of dialog and openness. President Obama’s speech in Cairo, in the early days of his presidency, on the importance of democratic freedom was another watershed. He also reversed course on several Bush administration policies. Obama shut down the CIA secret prisons and eliminated interrogation methods, such as water-boarding, that were not included in the army field manual.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks on the power of the Internet for creating social change, and the importance of keeping the Internet free and uncensored, are also a turning point in US thinking. Clinton took several steps in taking this tool into areas of heavy censorship, such as Iran, China, and Cuba, reaching out to individual citizens but without the prospect of direct U.S. intervention.
Barack Obama became President, in large part, because of his ability to communicate and connect through the internet. In light of Iran’s 2009 post-election turmoil, the Obama administration had clearly begun to appreciate the power of Internet access serving as an tool to empower the oppressed people of the world. The State Department licensed a company to deliver anti-censorship technology that would, in theory, allow Iranians to access the Internet without fear of repercussion. Though one such effort, Haystack, didn’t exactly work out well, the U.S. has had much more success in easing certain sanctions that formerly restricted developers like Google or Tor from getting their technology into the hands of the people of Iran.
Still, the Obama administration has been slow to institute a larger change in course. While the US may not have launched any new hyper-imperialist initiatives since he came into office, Obama has not closed Guantanamo Bay, he has not fully withdrawn troops from Iraq, he has presided over an increase of troops in Afghanistan, and he continued the policies of backing many of the regimes that now seem threatened by the recent revolutions that are spreading through the Middle East and North Africa.
Now, the administration has been forced into a position where changing these policies in a matter of weeks is too slow. In Egypt, in particular, Obama was faced with the prospect of either turning his back on a long-time ally, or turning his back on a pro-democracy movement. He is now facing a similar choice in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, and Yemen. In Yemen, the situation is particularly tricky, as the government has been an ally in the war on terror, and terrorists groups have been on the rise there. Even this pales in comparison to the problem in Iraq, where the U.S. has spent eight years establishing a government that could bring stability to the nation and end terrorism and insurgency. Both of these countries are now the scenes of deadly, violent crackdowns against protesters.
The rise of terrorist groups is certainly not the only concern. The economy of the region, and to a large extent the entire world, depends on trade through the Suez Canal and the continuous flow of oil. The US 5th Fleet is centred in Bahrain, which is also a major trading partner. Saudi Arabia is not only a military ally, but arguably the most important economy in the region. If its regime were to become destabilised by revolution, the economic effects could be equally destabilising in the region and in nations around the globe.
At the same time, the US risks further alienating the populace of these nations by backing the established regimes that have provided stability in recent years. Clearly, the United States and Europe, the self-proclaimed leaders of the “Free World”, cannot turn their back on the people who want nothing more than freedom and democracy. Their voices should not be ignored, and Washington and its European partners cannot afford to ignore them.
How has the Obama administration responded to this rapidly changing situation? In Libya, the United States seemed paralysed for weeks. Most of the population of Libya seems to have turned against Muammar Qaddafi, but the government there still had well-trained soldiers and weapons of war, enough to turn the rebel advance back and retake large amounts of territory. Obama seemed very hesitant about getting involved militarily, not wanting to be seen as the symbol for imperialism that so many of his predecessors had become.
Yet, when the Libyan rebels began to call out for foreign assistance, the US and the United Nations were placed in a precarious situation. If they failed to halt Qaddafi’s advance, the world would be faced with the prospect of mass murder that they did nothing to stop, a populace that hated them for their inaction, an Arab league ready to cry hypocrisy, a green light for all oppressive dictators, and one Muammar Gaddafi still in control of Libya.
In the 11th hour, the UN stepped in. Now we are seeing a consortium of nations that is forced to overcompensate for this hesitation by bombing military positions and government command centers in order to support the rebels. Already, the outgoing Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, is questioning whether or not the U.S., France, and Great Britain have overstepped their calls for a no-fly zone.
The US and Europe are stuck in a quagmire in a region overwhelmed by sudden change. The only rule that can be reliably followed is that all of the old rules do not apply. It is only slight hyperbole to say that Tunisia and Egypt have changed the entire face of US foreign policy, developed over the course of 60+ years, in a matter of 60 days. Perhaps the only thing that is clear is that the region is undergoing a fundamental shift, away from dictatorship and towards democracy. At the end of the day, the Western powers need to be on the side of the people, and not the side of repression.
In Egypt and in Tunisia this was fairly easy. Mubarak and Ben Ali stepped aside. In Libya, Gaddafi sealed his own fate by bombing and shelling his own civilians. The other governments in the region are not going away by their own accord, nor will they make their crackdown against protesters so obviously brutal. In Iraq, the U.S. may be able to leverage their support of the government,and the police to stop the slaughter of civilians and promote political dialog. In the other nations in the region, Washington will not have that kind of leverage. Attempts are being made to mediate these disputes, but if they fail, and civilians are attacked by staunch American allies, the US may be forced to pick sides.
If Obama’s hesitance to get involved militarily against Muammar Qaddafi, far from an ally, is any indication, the US is unlikely to put its foot down and side against the regimes. Instead, expect more indecision and weak statements of condemnation when abuses occur.
But we should also expect Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to continue to champion tools that would expand access to the Internet, tools that will likely fan the flames of unrest if the conditions of the protesters are not met. Perhaps we should also look to sanctions, maybe not against whole countries, but against individuals. Recently, the Obama Administration sanctioned top Iranian officials, freezing their assets and banning their travel to the US. It prohibited American companies from doing business with the Tehran Prosecutor General and the head of the Basij militia because of “serious human rights abuses” after the 2009 presidential election.
These actions are not as attention-grabbing or decisive as no-fly zones or cruise-missile attacks, but they are the kind of out-of-the-box weapons in a soft war against oppression that the U.S. needs in a post-imperial age. These tactics also probably offer the best solution to for playing a Go game in the middle of a 60 year-old chess match.