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Friday, July 27, 2012

The Agenda: For the United States, Arab Spring Raises Question of Values Versus Interests


CAIRO - Barack Obama came here as a new president in 2009 to proclaim “a new beginning” in American relations with the Muslim world, grounded in support for the dream of Arab democracy and “governments that reflect the will of the people.”

The Agenda

Middle East stability and security post Arab Spring.

He could not have guessed that the demand for Arab democracy would instead become one of his presidency's greatest foreign policy challenges, forcing whoever wins the November election to confront tough trade offs between American values and interests.

The popular uprisings that have swept the region since Mr. Obama's speech in Cairo have upended an authoritarian order that was largely congenial to the United States. While they may have brought Arab nations closer than ever to fulfilling of the pr omise of self-determination that has echoed through the speeches of American presidents since Woodrow Wilson at the end of the First World War, they have also imperiled crucial American allies, empowered antagonistic Islamists, and unleashed sectarian animosities that threaten to drag the whole region toward chaos.

Before the uprisings, a rough balance of power held in check enemies like Iran. Israel and other allies were increasingly secure within their borders. Even Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, once the “mad dog of the Middle East,” in President Ronald Reagan's words, was eager for closer ties with the United States, and American diplomats sent high-level emissaries to the Syrian capital, Damascus, in the hope of sweet-talking President Bashar al-Assad at least a few steps away from Tehran and closer to Washington.

Despite the strains caused by the invasion of Iraq and its bloody aftermath, American influence was arguably at an apex in the capitals of the Ar ab world if not the hearts and minds of the its people.

There was one deadly drawback. Washington's support for Arab autocracies drew the fire of militants who despaired of toppling their own monarchs and strongmen. That was the genesis of Al Qaeda. But those same Arab strongmen - including Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Colonel Qaddafi in Libya, and President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia - were eager to lend their spies and jails to the American fight against terrorism.

For the occupant of the White House, the upheaval has produced at least three pressing dilemmas.

The first is the rising power of Islamists. Democratic elections in Egypt and Tunisia have brought to power Islamist parties historically opposed to United States policies in the region, from Washington's support for Israel to the American invasion of Iraq. At the same time, the toppling of the old secular strongmen has opened up a new debate among Islamists over ju st what Islamic governance should mean, including how to balance respect for individual freedom against traditional religious values. How can American policy makers assess the intents and agenda of the new Islamist leaders? Can the United States build productive alliances with these former foes? In Egypt, should the United States back the elected Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood in their struggle to pry power from the hands of military leaders? The generals were once Washington's best friends in Egypt but now threaten to curtail the transition to democracy?

The second challenge is the threat the insurgents pose to other undemocratic allies. Here the clearest case is in the tiny, oil-rich Kingdom of Bahrain. It is the home to the American fifth fleet and provides a vital base in the Persian Gulf. But its Sunni Muslim monarchs have used brutal force to crush a largely peaceful democracy movement backed by a Shiite Muslim majority.

Can or should the United States push the king to yield power? Would that risk the rise of Shiite Muslim parties backed by Shiite Muslim Iran? Would it alienate other important allies like the monarchs of Saudi Arabia or Jordan? And if the American president continues to stand by the King of Bahrain - as the Obama administration has - can America still hold itself up as a champion of democratic values in the rest of the region?

The third challenge is the eruption of sectarian animosities long suppressed by the old autocrats. The most explosive case here is Syria. The uprising against Mr. Assad is also a battle between Syria's Sunni Muslim majority and his own minority Alawite Muslim sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam whose members dominate the Syrian military. Many of the Alawites fear annihilation at the hands of the Sunni insurgents seeking revenge for decades of repression by Mr. Assad and his father, former President Hafez al Assad. Others in the region fear the Syrian conflict could become a regi onal proxy war pitting Shiite Iran on one side against Sunni Muslim Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the gulf states on the other. Sparks from the Syrian fighting have already shown the potential to reignite sectarian violence in neighboring Lebanon, around the border town of Tripoli.

Should the United States lend its support to the rebels challenging Mr. Assad, as Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, both Republicans, have urged? How well does the United States know the rebels it might aid? And can Western policy makers prevent or contain a descent into sectarian violence, a grander and more catastrophic return of the kind of strife that engulfed neighboring Lebanon in a decade of civil war?

The situation is evolving by the day and often in unpredictable ways. It often seems distant from the domestic economic issues dominating the presidential campaign. But as Mr. Obama has learned since his speech in Cairo three years ago, events, welco me or not, have a way of imposing themselves on the White House.

Over the course of the campaign we will try to present arguments from Washington and the Middle East about how the White House might seek to advance American values and interests after “the new beginning” of the Arab spring. And we will re-examine the challenge over the next few months with each turn of events in the region. We are inviting experts and readers to weigh in and raise questions as we explore the issues, as part of a series we're calling the Agenda.