Barack Obama's Middle East policy巴拉克.奥巴马的中东政策
From Oslo to Benghazi从奥斯陆到班加西
A Nobel prizewinner’s voyage of discovery 一个诺贝尔和平奖获得者的发现之旅
WHEN he collected his Nobel peace prize from Oslo in December 2009, Barack Obama acknowledged the oddity of receiving such an honour while commanding the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also made it plain that the use of force might be justified on humanitarian grounds—as, in his view, it had been in the Balkans in the 1990s. To that extent, at least, he had prepared the ground for Libya. It has nonetheless come as a shock to many Americans to find themselves plunged so abruptly into a new war in an Arab country. How did that peaceable Mr Obama get them into this?
From the very beginning of his presidency Mr Obama had little choice but to run an active policy in the Middle East. He needed to extricate American forces from Iraq (the better to prosecute the war in Afghanistan); he faced the continuing challenge of Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons programme; he had to carry on the fight against al-Qaeda; and, like many presidents, he inherited an explosive stalemate in Palestine. But to these pressing practical demands he added a broader aspiration: repairing the damage done by George Bush’s reaction to the attacks of September 11th 2001 on America’s relations with the Muslim world, especially with the Arabs.
In June 2009 Mr Obama gave voice to the aspiration in a speech in Cairo, where he was the guest of the then dictator, Hosni Mubarak. He told his eager audience that he was seeking “a new beginning” based on “mutual interest and mutual respect”. He also spoke at length about democracy, and the controversy generated by America’s push for it in the wake of the Iraq war. Mr Obama’s argument was that “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other”. America did not presume to know what was best for everyone. But that did not lessen his commitment “to governments that reflect the will of the people”.
Since those two speeches, a strange thing has happened. The practical problems Mr Obama inherited in the Middle East have proved obstinately hard to resolve. In the meantime, however, the abstract issues he raised in Oslo and Cairo have thrust themselves to centre-stage. The Arab awakening has demanded rapid decisions about whether to support or abandon friendly autocrats such as Mr Mubarak. And in Libya Mr Obama has had to rush in double-quick time through a real-life version of his Oslo argument: that America sometimes has to use force on humanitarian grounds.
Lovely in the spring明媚春光
The early part of the Arab awakening was simplest for Mr Obama. Some Americans construed the people-power revolution that toppled Mr Mubarak in February as a blow to the United States; but if Mr Obama shared these qualms, he hid them well. “Egypt will never be the same,” he said, implying that it would be better.
From the outset, according to a senior administration official, Mr Obama not only concluded that Egypt’s president of 30 years was beyond saving. He also welcomed this example of peaceful democratic change driven from within and not, as in Iraq, by Western power. This development, Mr Obama concluded, had “a very good upside” for the United States. The emergence of a democratic Egypt would at last help America to align its interests with its values and sharply counter the message of violent change preached by al-Qaeda.
Mr Obama’s optimistic reading of events was all every well when Tunisia and Egypt were the templates for change. But it was too much to expect all the long-entrenched autocrats of the Arab world to go so gently into their good nights. In Yemen and Bahrain, pro-American regimes are clinging bloodily to power in spite of America’s pleas for reform. Since both have been highly useful to the United States (Yemen helps to hold al-Qaeda at bay and Bahrain hosts the Fifth Fleet), this makes it much harder for Mr Obama to align his country’s interests with its values.
Libya, the Americans insist, is a completely different kettle of piranhas. Even after giving up an illicit nuclear-weapons programme and compensating victims of the Pan Am bombing of 1988, Colonel Qaddafi was never America’s ally. And the depredations he has unleashed on the opposition eclipse anything witnessed so far in the course of the Arab awakening. That is why, on March 3rd, Mr Obama said the colonel had lost all legitimacy and had to “step down from power and leave”. To nudge him on his way Mr Obama closed Libya’s embassy in Washington, froze many of his assets and promoted international sanctions.
At the beginning of March, in other words, Mr Obama’s policy seemed to be regime change by exhortation and sanctions. The exact sequence of events that resulted in American forces being ordered into action just over a fortnight later is now hotly disputed. But what finally changed Mr Obama’s mind is no mystery: it was the imminent fall of Benghazi, the biggest city still in rebel hands, and the prospect of a calamity befalling its 700,000 or so inhabitants. “We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy,” Mr Obama said on March 19th. Though removing Colonel Qaddafi remains American policy, Mr Obama insists that this is not the aim of the military action authorised by the Security Council.
Most Arab leaders have little love for Colonel Qaddafi, so have muted their criticism of this latest war. But the “very good upside” Mr Obama discerned when he abandoned Mr Mubarak in February is no longer such a sure thing. It is much harder for him to maintain that counter-narrative of peaceful democratic change, which was supposed to disconcert Iran and al-Qaeda, while American missiles rain on Libya.
Meanwhile, the big regional problems that confronted America before the Arab awakening have not gone away. After his Cairo speech, Mr Obama tried to make good his promise to push for peace in Palestine. Last year he attempted to kick-start negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and picked a fight with Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, over Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. But the initiative failed, and in February Mr Obama ordered a veto of a Security Council resolution that would have condemned the settlements.
Mr Obama has had only slightly more success with Iran. After intricate diplomacy last year, he won Russian and Chinese support for a Security Council resolution that applies tough new economic sanctions. Yet the tighter squeeze has not made the Iranians stop enriching uranium.
The administration hopes that the Arab awakening may revive Iran’s pro-democracy“green revolution” of 2009. At that time, Mr Obama limited his support for the opposition out of fear that an American embrace might taint it. Now he is less cautious: in a message for the Persian new year he told Iran’s young that they were not “bound by the chains of the past”. For the time being, however, the regime is holding firm.
Iran also has the satisfaction of watching Mr Obama’s response to the Arab awakening weaken some of America’s oldest alliances in the Middle East. The Gulf rulers in general, and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in particular, began to lose faith in America’s reliability as a protector the moment Mr Obama decided to abandon the faithful Mr Mubarak. The Saudis are reported not to have consulted America before deciding that they would send troops across the causeway to help the embattled royal family in next-door Bahrain.
To opponents at home, all this is evidence that Mr Obama is out of his depth. Sarah Palin, on a visit to Jerusalem, said that if she were president she would have shown “more decisiveness”. Maybe. But Mr Obama can at least say that his improvised responses to the fast-moving Arab awakening have conformed broadly to the principles he laid out in his thoughtful speeches in Cairo and Oslo. If only intellectual consistency were a guarantee of success in war and diplomacy.