The Clueless President

The developments in the Middle East have left President Obama in a deep quandary and in a position where he is unable to use his vast intellect to make decisions.

The key issue for the U.S. is as follows – “do we abandon loyal allies and side with the protesters who might bring in disloyal democratic governments ?”, or “do we side with our long-lasting dictatorial governments, who are partners in the war on terrorism, and let democracy go to hell”.

Interesting dilemma, isn’t it ? The U.S. has had a long tradition of supporting friendly dictators in countries around the world, not just the Middle East. They have done it in South America, in Africa and in Asia for a long, long time. As long as the government is friendly to the U.S. and supports U.S. strategic interests, damn the citizens, they hardly matter. This has been the philosophy of successive U.S. Presidents, despite their stated commitment towards promoting democracy around the world.

The U.S. promotes development of democratic institutions in countries where there is already some form of democracy. The funding that it provides for such efforts pales in comparison to the funds that it provides to dictators. Just Egypt alone has been getting at least USD 1.7B every year for keeping peace with Israel. No harm in that, as Egypt is a poor country and needs funding support to run the government. But two things happened over the past three decades – one is that democratic institutions were permanently damaged to the core with extermination of opposition political parties, and secondly the money went to select individuals and not to the larger population.

So, it was not a surprise when President Obama was faced with something not in the “script” – a people revolution in Egypt under the watchful eyes of the American Friend of all times, Mr Hosni Mubarak. It would have been more interesting had this happened during President George Bush’s time, who would have been more “hands-on” in consulting with President Mubarak. But President Obama is from the Democratic Party and is somewhat idealistic, so he dithered. That may not be entirely his fault. His capable team of advisors failed to advise him to expect the unexpected. President Obama’s responses during the 3-week crisis oscillated between widely varying positions, causing consternation to all, especially to the “other” close friends of the U.S. in the Middle East.

Well, we can’t expect President Obama to have all the tools necessary to face and handle the democratic crises sweeping the region given the historical precedents and complex issues surrounding U.S. foreign policy issues. The administration’s response to the protests in Bahrain which led to deaths by army shooting, was muted. Surprising ? No, not at all. Don’t forget the U.S. Fifth Fleet is stationed at Bahrain with the long-standing support of the ruler.

A classic dilemma between strategic interests and democracy ?

Let us see how the situation unfolds and how the U.S. retools its foreign policy in the wake of one of the biggest democratic revolutions sweeping the world today. I am sure they will find a way which balances their interests with the people-driven governments likely to come up in the next few years in the volatile region. Expect coups, of course !


Vijay Srinivasan
19th February 2011


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