POMED Notes: “Arab Spring: Is America Getting It Right?”
On Tuesday, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a debate to be aired on BBC’s The World Debate on U.S. foreign policy in response to the uprisings in the Middle East. Matt Frei, anchor for BBC’s World News America moderated the event and introduced the following panelists: Marwan Muasher, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment; Tamara Wittes, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs; Elliott Abrams, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment and editor of the online journal, the Arab Reform Bulletin.
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Matt Frei opened by asking the audience whether they believe the Administration has adequately responded to the events in region, to which he received a mixed response. Responding, Tamara Wittes stated that the response of the audience reflects the unprecedented nature of the events and the fact that these protests are not anti-American but rather about internal governance issues. She also noted that since January, when Clinton delivered her speech in Doha, the administration has pushed for the region’s governments to get ahead of the streets and implement reform. Elliot Abrams and Michele Dunne noted, however, that the administration has been slow to react to the events and articulate U.S. policy and to adequately support the protesters. Dunne stated that the administration should have pushed these regimes more in the last few years instead of just using rhetoric.
In response to a question by Frei on the differing reaction of the U.S. to events on the ground, Marwan Muasher stated that for years the United States has valued stability over true democratic reform, ignoring the fact that long term stability requires reform. The challenge he states is bringing these two desires together and while President Barack Obama stated that this is the goal, he has failed to outline how he will accomplish this. He also stated that in his capacity as Jordan’s deputy prime minister he also attempted to implement a reform agenda approved by the King. He stated, however, that these efforts were thwarted by elites. He stated that the reform process moving forward will be a struggle, but is essential for stability. “Reform is not going to come for free.”
Audience member and former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley asked the panel about the administration’s inconsistency in response to the regional uprisings and questioned the precedent set by Libya and its impact on the situation in Syria. Tamara Wittes responded by stating that in the case of Libya, the United States intervened to address the humanitarian crisis after receiving an international mandate from the UN and after gaining the support of the Arab League and regional governments. She stated that the situation in Syria is one the international community must face together and that it is not for any single actor to decide. Elliot Abrams countered by stating that the administration waited too long to intervene in Libya. He asserted that had the U.S. intervened sooner, Muammar Gadhafi would no longer be in power and violence would have subsisted. Wittes noted the ramifications unilateral action would have had on the political development of Libya and the U.S.’s regional standing; she pointed to Iraq as an example of this. Michele Dunne stated that the situation in Syria is markedly different from Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya as the uprising has moved slowly with a large segment of the population remaining out of the conflict. Marwan Muasher also noted the mass support for an intervention on Libya and stated that the U.S. cannot intervene in each state. However, he stated that the U.S. should be clear in stating that if leaders are willing to kill their own people, then it is time for change.
Marina Ottaway, Director of Carnegie’s Middle East Program, questioned panelists on whether there was a way for the U.S. to continue its support of the Arab Spring without clashing with Saudi Arabia. Michele Dunne responded by stating that in the past we have ignored the differences in our values and focused on our overlapping interests. However, the stark differences in our values are becoming more obvious. She stated that Saudi Arabia will have to face the reality of change in the region and allow democracies to develop in Egypt. She noted that Egyptian officials have stated to the Saudis, that while they understand their concerns, the regime must support the transition. Tamara Wittes has stated that the United States, in its discussions with the Saudis has stated time and time again that the best chance of stability in the country and the region is through a process of reform. Elliot Abrams stated that the Bush administration had close relations with the Saudi monarchy and kept them on a tight leash. He notes that if the Arab Spring had taken place under Bush’s tenure, this close relationship could have prevented the GCC’s intervention in Bahrain and averted the escalation of violence in Bahrain due to the close relationship with the Bahraini king as well. Marwan Muasher stated that kings will only stay in charge if they take charge of the reform process and if they enjoy legitimacy. He called on the region’s monarchs to get ahead of the street and institute a serious reform process as the Arab street will no longer be fooled by rhetoric.
Tamara Wittes also noted that it is the people who are driving these revolutions and that the grassroots nature of the uprisings makes the U.S. question what exactly its role in these uprisings can be. She noted that the U.S. supports the people’s aspirations and their right to protest. She also stated that the U.S. is ready to help the people and the government’s institute reform and provide economic stability so they can deliver on promises for political freedom.
Addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Tamara Wittes stated that the United States supports the Palestinian people’s aspirations for statehood and noted the growth of the Palestinian Authority over recent years. She also noted the President’s recent calls to restart the peace process. Elliot Abrams stated that this is not the time for Obama to be pushing for a peace process. He noted that Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian leaders are more concerned about the unity agreement and domestic politics; Abbas, he says is ready to retire and does not want to make any decisions that would be seen as “treasonous” by the Palestinian population.
An audience member and MBC correspondent questioned panelists on Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress and the future of the peace process. Elliot Abrams stated that Palestinians are not open to negotiations as marked by their decision to present resolutions to the United Nations and their support for Hamas. He also stated that Israelis are ready to make peace and know tough decisions will need to be made; he pointed to the ongoing debates in Israel over which settlements will need to be deserted. Michele Dunne stated that time and time again, the Palestinians have been forced to stake out “tough positions” after initial U.S. declarations of support for certain policies such as settlement freezes. She hopes that the U.S. follows through on its support the 1967 borders. She also noted that the Arab Spring has already had an impact on Palestinians as demonstrated by the new Fatah-Hamas reconciliation and the Nakba day demonstrations. They are not only calling for better governance, she stated, but also for a diplomatic outlet. The status quo, Dunne said, is not sustainable. Tamara Wittes stated that issues such as the 1967 borders, refugees, and settlement freezes need to addressed at the negotiating table and the Administration is working to jumpstart negotiations. Marwan Muasher stated that this is the last opportunity to resolve this crisis. The Palestinian street is not going to wait for a new president; instead, it will follow the example of the Arab Spring and take to the streets. He called on Obama to make more concrete statements on the peace process.
Audience member and Research Assistant at the Carnegie Endowment Manar Hassan noted the importance of Nakba day for the greater Arab world and also, in response to a question by host Matt Frei, discussed how the Egyptian Revolution empowered Egyptians and the Arab world as it signaled the end of elites and dictators dictating the future of the people and the country. She also noted her concern of a counterrevolution led by members of the military and elements of the old regime. An MBC Correspondent in the audience noted the impact it had on Palestinians, stating that it gave them hope that they would have the chance to have their voices heard.
Moroccan Ambassador to the United States, Aziz Mekouar discussed the impact on the protests in Tunisia and Egypt on Morocco and the King’s reform agenda announced on March 9th. He stated that a commission working on reforms is meeting with NGOs, opposition parties, and the youth to assess what Moroccans want. Their recommendations for constitutional amendments will be put to referendum in June. He also noted that the 2007 elections in Morocco were judged to be free and fair by international observers, but that there was only a 37% voter turnout. Tamara Wittes stated that how a government responds to demands for change is equally important to the kind of changes which are implemented. She lauded the Moroccan government’s attempts to institute reform and especially highlighted the inclusive approach. Michele Dunne, noting the recent GCC invitation to Morocco and Jordan to join the group, called on the administration to declare full support of the two countries’ reform processes and push them to implement real and not cosmetic reform.
Addressing a question from Karim Sadjadpour, associate in Carnegie’s Middle East program, over what should be a priority for the Administration—the peace process, the transitions, or Iran—, Marwan Muasher stated that each of these issues are important and need to be addressed, but noted how events in Cairo impact the entire region. He called for the U.S. to support all these revolutions.
Discussing the situation in Iran, Elliot Abrams stated that Iran is a great strategic problem in the region and will stand in the way of regional stability. He noted, however, that prior to the uprisings, the Arab world was dead. Now, as it experiences rejuvenation, no one is asking for Iran’s help. Tamara Wittes also addressed Iran’s hypocrisy and noted the lack of influence Iran has had over the recent events in the Arab World. Thomas Carothers, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, questioned if Iran benefits from these events in any way. Marwan Muasher stated that while Iran may benefit a little in the short-term, it will not in the long-term. Michelle Dunne stated that there is a large likelihood that Iran will not benefit in the long run, unless the situation in Bahrain continues its course and if the U.S. and EU fail to adequately support the transitions in Egypt and Tunisia. On the Green Revolution, Wittes stated that the U.S. supported and stood up for the rights of protesters but were careful about the perceptions of direct U.S. involvement in the conflict. Elliot Abrams cautioned against letting Syria become the Iran of 2009 or the Syria of 1956. Michele Dunne stated that she believes Obama regrets the way the Revolution played out in Iran.
Discussing the situation in Bahrain, Marwan Muasher called for the U.S. to use its leverage on Bahrain and enunciate a more clear position on the need for dialogue and reform. Tamara Wittes stated that the Administration is working ceaselessly to arrange political dialogue. She stated that the events on the ground have polarized the situation and making it increasingly difficult. She states, however, that this makes dialogue ever more important to prevent Iran from gaining influence and power. Michele Dunne stated that while it was good that Obama mentioned the situation in Bahrain during his speech that more needs to be done. Instead of declaring niceties on government reform and stability, decisive and assertive action and dialogue must occur. She called on the Administration to use the presence of the naval base as leverage to ensure the protection of human rights and freedom of the Bahraini people. Elliot Abrams also called on the Bahraini government to address the concerns of its people, stating that the king must understand that he does not own the country.
On where they see the region ten years from now, Michele Dunne stated that the situation will be much better with at least a few democracies in place. The road there, however, will be rough. Marwan Muasher stated that while all countries will not be democracies, the situation will be better and there will be a greater outlet for people to air their frustrations. Elliot Abrams agreed and cautioned there may be some authoritarian back sliding. Tamara Wittes expressed homes that the situation would be better as well and stated that the United States will continue to pursue a partnership with the people, not just the rulers.