No Moral Consistency in Obama’s Middle East Policy

Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and now Libya. In the last decade the U.S. military has fought Muslims across the Middle East (Iraq and Libya) and South Asia (Afghanistan and Pakistan) for a number of reasons: national security, protection of vital interests such as oil supply, and humanitarian crises. Though our recent foray into Libya can be considered more nuanced than our earlier interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, our poorly defined words and actions have called into question our intent, with a mistrust of U.S. policy becoming a worldwide issue. In Libya, the U.S. lead role in the military intervention has proven that its advertised intentions and actions clash with reality on the ground.

The Arab world is desperately trying to shed its tyrants. Tunisia and Egypt have taken steps toward more democratic governments after the overthrow of their autocratic rulers. Bahrain and Yemen are in revolt, but help from the rest of the world has been scarce. Bahrain, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has substantial agreements with the United States. In Yemen, the presence of an active al-Qaeda wing creates fears of any further instability. But in Libya, Gaddafi’s history of heinous acts, and threats to slaughter suspected rebels, created a storm of opportunity and humanitarian pleas.

President Obama laid out his reasons for intervening in Libya during a March 28 speech at the National Defense University. Referencing the looming human catastrophe, Obama cited past multilateral, UN-backed interventions to claim his Libya policy was linked to U.S. national interests. Though such humanitarian intervention seems noble, Obama’s policy is intentionally amorphous to accommodate the changing environment. The reports of CIA operatives inside Libya, contrary to the stated policy of no boots on the ground, only serves to engender more mistrust of our declared policies.

Most worrisome is the doublespeak regarding Arab support of intervention. In his speech, Obama referenced the Arab League vote in support of a no-fly zone as proof of Arab support for the intervention. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several other administration officials — as well as countless pundits — also touted the Arab League’s support. Left unstated is that a number of the 22 Arab governments in the Arab League are headed by the despotic rulers whose people are currently in revolt. These are the leaders who pillaged their respective countries’ treasury, tortured their citizens, subjugated their women, and repressed any hope of freedom. (Post-revolt Egypt and Tunisia are new exceptions but have not had time to formulate a policy stance toward the Arab League.) It is cynical and the height of hypocrisy to use the actions of despotic rulers as indicators of Arab support for a military intervention. The Arab League is not equivalent to the Arab people.

The president correctly argued, “America cannot use our military whenever repression occurs… we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.” The president demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice humanitarian need by assuring non-interference to Bahrain’s ruling regime despite clear evidence of mass arrests, beatings, and imprisonment of opposition party leaders. Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive governments in the Middle East, has been assured of our support and friendship over three visits by Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. When a policy of realpolitik meets moral authority repeatedly, a suspicious world will question true intent. This shortsightedness betrays our stated commitment to freedom and buttresses the cynical views of the Arab people about U.S. designs. The United States should provide unfettered support to the “Arab Spring” movements to topple their illegitimate regimes — but without using military intervention. We should provide moral, economic, and educational support, and later help construct the civil society infrastructure required for freedom and democracy. Doing so may mean navigating through a more complex future Arab environment, but in the long run Americans and Arabs will both be winners.

The United States should declare outright that its vital national interest includes buying oil at the market price, supporting free and democratic regimes in the region, and destroying safe havens for terrorists. We should also declare that we have no hidden policy of occupation or installing compliant governments. With these pronouncements, we will be granting Arabs the dignity they long for and deserve.