There have been significant changes in the political and social structures in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) since the beginning of the Arab Spring. These popular uprisings continue to alter American foreign policy. The dissolution of several totalitarian regimes in the area after forty years of rule heralds a new era of uncertainty not only for the local populations but also the international community. The establishment of new political institutions is leading to unforeseen areas of unrest. The September 11, 2012 attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi and widespread protests against the YouTube film, “Innocence of Muslims,” are the manifestations of these developments. The ability of American foreign policy to work effectively towards regional political and economic stability is hindered by these occurrences. However, there remains the opportunity for a watershed moment in American relations in the MENA region.
The correct remedy resides in bridging the gap between the way foreign policy objectives are pursued in the area and the way the American public perceives these policies. The sustainability of any policy rests on continued domestic support for it here in the United States. Therefore, for policymakers, the fundamental goal is to establish a direct link between foreign and domestic policy objectives.
In exploring the causes of the Arab Spring, several key issues are brought to light about past American foreign policy decisions regarding MENA. The first issue is that since the fall of the Soviet Union, the necessity of fighting an ideological conflict has disappeared and along with it, America’s will to aggressively pursue human right causes.
In the 1990s, Washington normalized its relationship with many countries in the region ruled by dictators for the sake of political stability i.e. Libya and Algeria and ignored the development of civil rights. The second issue is that American support for “allies” like Egypt and Morocco continued in spite of these governments’ conflict with “traditional” American values like freedom of expression and civil justice, all in name of political and economic progress.
The relative stability of MENA at the turn of the century, with the exception of the Algerian Civil War, created a veil that hid these trends. With the process of globalization in full swing by the beginning of the twentieth-first century all appeared in sync with the pursuit of American national interests in the region. However, several events would soon unravel this illusion. Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, American foreign policy towards the Islamic world shifted. The Global War on Terror necessitated a policy shift towards directly combating the emergence of Islamic extremists. As events unfolded in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington adopted a zero tolerance stance for anything related to Islamic extremism.
Evaluating the development of American foreign policy towards MENA following the September 11 terrorist attacks reveals that the overall objective was to eliminate Islamists’ influence in the political and social institutions of the region. There were a variety of governments in the region, but the aim of preventing the appeal of Islamic policies necessitated America’s continued support for regimes that advocated secular governments and ideologies regardless of their style of governance. American foreign aid was and is dependent on the ability of countries to conform to Washington’s national interests, which in several cases meant the suppression of Islamic extremists.
The defining characteristic of US foreign policy towards MENA for the past twenty years has been to promote political and economic stability, while turning a blind eye to grave human right injustices. Support for freedom of expression and political reforms have been lacking in American foreign policy objectives in MENA. This is important because without these basic rights people cannot bring grievances to bear against their governments. While the catalysts for the Arab Spring are still being debated, there remains a simple explanation that its roots are based in the ongoing economic crisis.
Global financial volatility and the economic recession shook the shady foundations that Middle East and North African governments rely on to keep domestic stability. This unleashed a hail of public criticism against national governments that do not have any venues for popular forums. Massive protests, political dissidents, and outright rebellion became the only means of expression for the people of MENA. The important issue is the role that American policy assumes in shaping this overall situation.
US policy did not cause these conditions. The combination of America’s Global War on Terror in the name of combating Islamic extremism and lack of support for political freedom has kept the area’s popular parties like the Muslim Brotherhood exiled from politics. The lack of any form of representative government prevents the populations from being able to express their desires through the progression of favorable legislation. This compounds the government’s ability to be flexible when faced with a judicial, national, or economic crisis. This results in stagflation across all facets of human life. In addition, the line that separates terrorist and political organizations has become blurred as a result of these actions, not only in foreign policy circles but also from the American public’s perspective. As previously mentioned, a majority of Americans lack a firm grasp on Islamic relations because of misconceptions that are perpetrated by the American media and political institutions, which in turn effects foreign policy because of its dependence on the democratic process.
The protests directed against the United States over the film, “Innocence of Muslims,” is connected to Muslims’ grievances over trends in American foreign policy regarding MENA. Recent uprisings represent more than a repressive people exercising the newfound right of expression against an offensive film that few in the region had even viewed. While the intensity and scope of the various protests differed from country to country, they shared several characteristics. First, the events were not orchestrated because the protests lacked common cohesion. Second, the sentiments represented a considerable proportion of the population. Third, the commonality of the rhetoric used by the protestors reveals a regional trend amongst a diversity of cultures and nationalities. Finally, the aggressive and provocative nature of the protests reveals the complexity of problems plaguing American-Islamic relations in MENA.
Key elements of American foreign policy in MENA need to be retooled. America’s primary objective should remain the development of political and economic stability. However, a greater emphasis needs to be placed on human rights especially on areas that past policy has neglected such as the development of freedom of expression and political reforms.
The Arab Spring cannot be written off only as a demand for greater individual freedoms but also as a denunciation of revolutionary and totalitarian rule. In American politics, there exist demands for foreign aid to be cut to these governments over the death of Christopher Steven, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and the violent nature of the protests. However, the newly democratically elected regimes are still fragile and require assistance because of the risk of greater anarchy. The tragic death of Stevens should not be viewed as a regressive step in the pursuit of democracy but as an opportunity to move forward. Current circumstances provide the perfect opportunity for regional governments to prove that they are capable of utilizing democratic institutions in addressing the attacks on U.S. Embassies throughout the region. American officials need to hold these governments accountable for their actions in the framework of international law and bring those responsible to justice. Under no circumstances should the recent uprisings be used as a pretext for any military interventions, it serves no political objective and could set back American relations in the region for years.
Addressing concerns over US foreign policy in MENA is an easier task than challenging domestic issues relating to American-Islamic relations. For US foreign policy to be truly effective, it requires domestic consent. However, getting public approval remains a challenge when dealing with cultures and people that are largely alien. The Global War on Terror has permanently altered the way Americans perceive Muslims. Due to political rhetoric and media hype, Islamophobia is ingrained into the American psyche. The ability to garner domestic support is the key for a successful foreign policy in MENA. The ability of offensive actions such as “Innocence of Muslims” and Qur’an book burning to incite violence and complicate international relations makes the case for a broader domestic policy to support the greater education of American-Islamic relations.
Bridging the gap between American foreign and domestic policy objectives is the key in pursuing an effective strategy for the development of MENA.