President Obama sought on Thursday to recalibrate the United States’ response to the Arab Spring, giving new weight to issues of democracy, freedom and human rights in its approach to a rapidly changing Middle East. But although Obama’s words were largely unassailable, they failed to address some of the more difficult realities of foreign policy.
Who could deny — or fail to be stirred by — the president’s assertion that the United States opposes tyranny? Or that the United States believes in free speech and self-determination and the right of people everywhere to protest peacefully, whether in Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Egypt or any other country? As long as they don’t turn to violence, the president said, the United States will support them in their calls for freedom of religion, women’s rights, economic justice and democracy.
These are long-standing American principles, at least on paper, and the times when the United States has followed through on them around the world have been among its proudest moments. But let’s be clear: To say that the U.S. supports freedom and democracy is easy. In practice, foreign policy is a complicated business, and sometimes a morally opaque one. That’s why the U.S. has so often found itself colluding with repressive regimes or failing to go to war to protect the innocent or turning a blind eye to gross violations of human rights.
Obama didn’t talk enough about the tricky situations. At what point, for example, does it become necessary to go to war to fight on behalf of core American values? Obviously, the U.S. cannot use its military might to solve all the problems of the world, so how should it pick and choose? Nor did the president discuss what to do when our short-term interests clash with our long-term values — as has been the case for many years with Saudi Arabia, a repressive, sexist, undemocratic Islamic monarchy that has been one of the United States’ chief allies in the region for decades (in no small measure because it sits on vast quantities of the oil that the U.S. economy subsists on).
And how should the United States choose sides when legitimate interests appear to clash, as in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians? Obama spoke articulately about the need to reach a two-state solution, but said nothing about, for instance, how to redress the grievances of Palestinian refugees without undermining the very existence of Israel, to which he said the United States has an “unshakeable” commitment.
The president deserves praise for stating clearly that U.S. interests are advanced by a more democratic and prosperous Middle East (and not just by dictators who allow us to drill for oil or base troops in their countries). His determination to reach beyond elites and put the U.S. squarely on the side of the repressed rather than their repressors is truly commendable. But he may find it more difficult than he expects to put his principles into practice, and may find himself explaining his choices again in the years ahead.