The Powerlessness Excuse: Debunking the Claim that Obama Could Not Have Affected the “Arab Spring” and Islamist Takeovers
One argument we increasingly will be hearing is that President Barack Obama couldn’t have done anything to change events in the Middle East. This is ironic, of course, because when things were going well he wanted to take credit as the inspiration for the “Arab Spring.”
Let’s remember that the president began with three acts that foreshadowed what was to come. He gave a speech in Cairo in which Muslim Brotherhood leaders were seated in front, thus making it impossible for Egyptian government officials to attend. Obama thus not only declared himself on the side of the opposition, but of the Islamist opposition.
Important, but never noticed, is something critical Obama did. In discussing the Middle East and the Arabic-speaking world, he exalted Islamic identity. Remember that for six decades, national — i.e., Arab — identity had dominated. True, it was used by dictatorships and for demagogic, anti-American purposes. Now, however, here was an American president declaring that religious identity should dominate. This was an action both against the existing regimes and the moderate opposition forces.
After the demonstrations in Egypt began in January 2011, the U.S. State Department — with the approval of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — advocated a policy in line with traditional U.S. strategy. They would work with the military to institute reforms and more freedom, while jettisoning the aged, ineffective President Hosni Mubarak. But they opposed the dismantling of the regime.
The White House rejected that approach. They publicly declared a desire for Egypt’s fundamental transformation.
Anyone who knew Egypt should have and could have predicted this meant Islamist dominance. Yet the administration rejected the idea that this might happen. Indeed, without being asked, Obama publicly stated that he had no problem with a Muslim Brotherhood government taking power. Obama deliberately didn’t consult with the leaders of Israel, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia because he didn’t want to hear their warnings about the risks he was taking and their opposition to what he was doing.
He had already decided that a Brotherhood regime would be his preferred outcome.
By such actions, Obama conveyed to the military that it could not expect U.S. support, and this made it impossible for the generals to try to retain control over events. Indeed, in the following months, U.S. policy under Obama’s direction constantly criticized the military and called for a quick transition.
But that did not mean that the Obama administration supported the moderate opposition. Reportedly, U.S. programs that helped prepare political forces for elections and taught them lessons about organizing were directed to the Brotherhood, not the liberals. There was certainly no systematic effort to help the moderates.
Indeed, in briefings to Congress and the media literally every day in 2011 and throughout 2012, the Obama administration — under the president’s supervision — whitewashed the Brotherhood as a moderate organization. Anti-American speeches by Brotherhood leaders, calls for jihad against Israel, extremist actions, and support for violence against U.S. soldiers in Iraq were all ignored.
The best-known example was intelligence director James Clapper’s declaration that the Brotherhood was a secular, moderate group.