And the big winner of the Arab Spring in Washington is … the State Department. The WSJ said that President Obama’s speech would reflect a major presidential policy shift in favor of Foggy Bottom. “Mr. Obama is expected to argue Thursday that the death of Osama bin Laden, paired with the popular uprisings, signals the possibility of a new, open and democratic opportunity for a region that is largely the province of entrenched autocrats.”
The Obama White House has moved to exert greater civilian control over the military, challenging the views of the top brass in some areas, officials say. At the same time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s State Department, together with a more assertive White House National Security Council, has taken a lead in crafting America’s response to the greatest geopolitical challenge since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
That puts the military in a bind. Many in the Pentagon ascribe to what Washington policy wonks call the “realist” theory of foreign policy, which believes in narrowly defined international goals, not reshaping the world. “We take countries as they are, not as we might wish they could be,” said a senior military officer working on the Middle East.
Mrs. Clinton is no idealist, but she has sought to build the State Department into a powerful base, and in recent months has made common cause with a younger group of more idealistic White House officials, according to U.S. officials. Senior U.S. officials say the eruption of political revolts across the Middle East at the beginning of 2011 blindsided the administration.
Ironically, military success gave the President the opportunity not to re-examine, but to renew the idea of a grand bargain with the troublesome states of the world. As this blog previously noted, the the death of Osama Bin Laden created an opportunity for the administration to either give its enemies the chance to walk away “and sin no more” or to redouble its efforts to bring them down. The administration appears to have taken the former course.
Strategically it marks a return to an emphasis on the Middle East. But it marks a return based on the strategy of supporting friendly elements in the “Arab Spring”, which will bring Democracy to the Middle East without any of the effort that the Bush administration thought necessary. To sweeten the pot for recalcitrant Middle Eastern factions, the Administration is going to offer them money. The Washington Post wrote, “under pressure from key allies to act more decisively on several volatile issues in the Middle East and North Africa, President Obama on Thursday promised new U.S. aid to nations that embrace democracy, condemned attacks on demonstrators and made a strong pitch for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal based on permanent and secure borders for two states.”
It remains to be seen whether President Obama can win his wager, because although it has some chance of succeeding it has a greater probability of failing. Other forces are seeking to dominate the “Arab Spring” and not all of them are benign. The late Osama bin Laden’s forces are also trying to hijack the movements. In one of his last messages, Bin Laden praised “the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and encourages other uprisings throughout the region … The audio message, which Al Qaeda said was recorded a week before his May 2 death, could be a signal that the group is belatedly trying to insert itself into the mostly domestic, secular movements.” He said:
I believe that the winds of change will envelope the entire Muslim world.
This revolution was not for food and clothing. Rather, it was a revolution of glory and pride, a revolution of sacrifice and giving. It has lit the Nile’s cities and its villages from its lower reaches to the top. To those free rebels in all the countries — retain the initiative and be careful of dialogue. No meeting mid-way between the people of truth and those of deviation.
And not everyone thinks that tyrannies can be toppled. In development that bodes ill for President Obama’s new initiative, the AP reports that Syrian President Bashar Assad now believes he can ride out the storm besetting his regime. Russia has recently declared it will not support any UN resolutions that would open the way for ‘interference’ in Syrian internal affairs. In the last few years the President had Teheran against the ropes twice, and Syria once, but each time decided to let his opponent off the hook. Perhaps he recalled the warning of UN negotiators to the Sri Lankan government, who even as the Tamil Tiger movement was approaching its last hour argued, ‘if you defeat them then who will you negotiate with?’
The President’s desire to leave things in the hands of the State Department is understandable. His ideological preferences and desire to focus on the domestic agenda will incline him to that approach. But it also represents a perverse act of faith in an institution which has, until this point in his administration, earned little credit for itself. The State Department got a lot of thing wrong on the way to its captaincy in the war against terror. It may also get a lot of things wrong going forward. And if it fails the heirs of Osama bin Laden and the political demons of the Middle East will be the first to benefit.