Speaking of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt allegedly said that “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” While the quote’s authenticity is still debated by historians, it succinctly describes the United States’ justification for backing right-wing authoritarian regimes even prior to the Cold War.
It also reflects the interest-based realpolitik that drives U.S. foreign policy to this day, particularly in strategically vital areas such as the Middle East. As recent events in the region indicate, though, this time-tested strategy now faces a hard new reality: like the oil many of them control, America’s “sons of bitches” may be a diminishing resource.
Democratization advocates started the New Year with a bang, both figuratively and literally. In a matter of weeks, two well-established and seemingly stable regimes in North Africa were toppled by largely peaceful mass movements. On January 14, Tunisian President Ben Ali was forced out of office, and on February 11, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak followed suit after weeks of highly publicized protests in Tahrir Square captivated much of the world’s attention.
The untenable position in which the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes found themselves was largely of their own making, but it also forced the U.S. government to confront a difficult question: Should Washington continue to support an allied regime that had clearly lost the support of its own people, or should it ignore decades of close cooperation by throwing an unpopular ally under the bus?
Each option would have severe and immediate drawbacks. Faced with a choice between alienating the masses fighting for democracy on the streets, or alienating other allied authoritarian regimes whose cooperation has been vital on a range of security, economic, and political concerns, it is not surprising that the Obama administration chose to navigate a course between the two extremes.
While the calculated statements, delicate rhetoric, and at times mixed messages that emanated from the White House reflected this inherent tension and the incredibly fluid situation on the ground, it also left the Administration open to a consistent criticism—that the White House was “behind the curve” in Egypt.
While this criticism arose from nearly all sides of the debate, it is not entirely warranted.
To be fair, this scenario has been decades in the making. The strategic importance of the Middle East, particularly its oil reserves, was officially recognized by the Eisenhower Doctrine in 1957. Since then, every U.S. president has accepted the status quo and supported the local strong-men that have collaborated with the U.S. for years.
Although there have been some very high profile failures such as the oil shocks of the 1970s, the Iranian Revolution, and two wars with Saddam Hussein, the policy has largely served America’s core interests of ensuring regional stability and maintaining access to oil. Critics have argued for decades that the policy is unsustainable over the long-term and runs counter to U.S. values, but as long as the desired results were achieved there has been no significant political pressure to change course—at least until now.
It is still too early to call what has happened in North Africa a “turning point”—at least not in the sense that events going forward will be part of an inevitable victory march towards democracy—but regardless of the eventual outcome, the groundswell of political activism sparked by the self immolation of a vegetable cart vendor in Tunisia may finally alter Washington’s strategic calculus.
President Obama made it clear during the crisis that Egypt cannot go back to the way it was, which means he must also recognize the U.S. cannot go back either. The real challenge the President faces now is not how to deal with Egypt per se—it is to understand how the changes (or lack thereof) that Egypt undergoes over the next year will affect the overall strategic balance in the Middle East.
This distinction is important. The White House can be excused for being ‘behind the curve’ of fast-moving events on the ground in a single country. It cannot be excused for misreading the strategic impact those events will have on an entire region, particularly one as vital as the Middle East.
This image is being used under Creative Commons licensing. The original source can be found here.