The United States has a long history of self-interested international relations and foreign policy, which has lead to interesting results and situations often far from ideal - this has been especially true within the Middle Eastern, Northern Africa, and South Asia. For nearly the first two centuries of America’s existence, this extreme self-interest went largely unnoticed, or at least without any great attention paid to it, outside of the countries directly affected. With the rise of the Cold War, and the media landscape that quickly evolved alongside the icy hostilities, awareness rose of the various dictators and less-than-magnanimous regimes that the United States supported for solely its own purposes.
With the end of 2010 and the opening of 2011 came the birth of the Arab Spring , the Winter of Discontent. Within this movement, leaders and entire regimes were deposed by the uprising of various states’ peoples, all of which began peacefully, with only a few becoming violent – Libya is the only state in the midst of an actual civil war. The process of people-powered, idealistic revolution is still developing, with revolts continuing, brewing, and creating aftermaths that must be tended to.
While not all of the states involved in uprisings over the last eight months have been supported by the United States, there exists a prevailing theme: totalitarian regimes that disrespected the rights of their people often had ties to the West. Whether the tie was to the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, or others, the West had a hand in the development of these states, including in the drawing of their borders, which created no small amount of friction. The existence of oil within many of these states, or other valuable commodities, exacerbated the ruling regimes’ strength.
Presently, in June of 2011, there have been successful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia; political reforms enacted in Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, and Morocco; an ongoing civil war in Libya; severe instability in Yemen; and reactionary efforts in both Syria and Bahrain that are oppressive at best, possibly heading toward civil war. It would be difficult to claim that all of these states have ties to each other, because they don’t – race, religion, language, and politics are all extremely different across these states. Rather, the unifying trend is an oppressive government in a country with a burgeoning youth population that tends to be highly educated, unemployed, and terribly poor. Socioeconomic solidarity, more than anything else, has united these various peoples together.
The West, including the United States, has taken a piecemeal approach to the situation: intervention in Libya, nonintervention in Syria, and so on down the list. Partially, this is due to the simple fact that there exists no Western state or IGO large enough to successfully become involved in all of the locations of difficulty, much less properly defend the local people and their rights from respective oppressive regimes. The other factor, however, is the issue of Western support for regimes, wherein the United States, or others, may have supported a corrupt dictator or oligarchy in order to maintain influence in the region, while stabilizing whatever benefits the support state receives out of this relationship.
Does the United States wish to see the people of a state, any given state, unduly suffer? Absolutely not – the issue, however, is whether the interests of the United States appear to be more important than the happiness, safety, or future of a foreign people.
Push the self-interest of the United States aside, and another truth is revealed that’s not as widely discussed: American political, diplomatic influence varies in strength from state to state, and, consequently, even if the United States wished to politically force a regime out of power, it sadly may not in a position to do so. With Egypt, the United States had great influence, as a supporter of the country’s military in their eternal stand-off with Israel, so there was substantial leverage in order to force Mubarak out of power. In Syria, however, the United States has a less-than-influential presence – the opinion of the United States is not only disregarded, but outright disrespected; consequently, other powers have had to exert influence, such as Turkey.
The Middle East is in the middle of a revolution, both political and cultural, and the outcome of such drastic events cannot be determined until the new political institutions have been in place for some time, the Libyan civil war is concluded, and the various other ongoing conflicts are, one way or another, terminated. For the United States, this is a time of great worry and frustration, as the habits of old are coming under substantial fire and the limits of influence are being publicly demonstrated, and thus the diplomatic and military way forward for this region remains murky.
President Obama, for all his ideals and intentions, has less involvement in the Arab Spring than tends to be believed.
Kyle Brady is a young political scientist and writer interested in everything from domestic politics to foreign policy to political theory, currently living in San Jose, CA. He blogs at kyle-brady.com, is writing a book on the modern political scene in America, is on Twitter as @brady_kyle, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.