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Obama's Promises

By Henry "Chip" Carey

What a leader actually achieves in office is often quite different from what he proposes during an election campaign and what he attempts once elected. While scholars have suggested that most presidents try to keep most of their campaign promises, the exceptions are quite telling, and often disturbing.

Many have tried to explain structural reasons why the Obama presidency has not been as progressive as his campaign oratory would suggest. On the domestic front, the explanations range from "he really is a moderate, not a progressive," to Senate filibuster rules requiring super-majorities, to the vituperative rhetoric of pundits and interest groups in a media and popular culture characterized by adversarial confrontations. However, on foreign policy, it was presumed that a candidate who was fully committed to negotiation, reconciliation, democratization and peace would not have upped the ante in Afghanistan, would have closed Guantanamo Bay, and would have pulled out of Iraq sooner.

Obama appeared to be one of the most liberal presidential candidates, initially campaigning against the war in Iraq, while his opponent for the Democratic Party nomination, Hillary Clinton, voted for the war. However, he remains deeply immersed two conflicts, increasing the presence in Afghanistan without fully withdrawing from Iraq, despite campaign promises to do so. The president has postponed indefinitely any plans to close down the Guantanamo detention center. He has continued renditions to countries like Egypt that are not only suspected of terrorism, but actually subcontracted to torture on behalf of the United States, whether or not the defendant ever faces trial. National security arguments are used to prevent even civil law suits for alleged torture, and there have been no criminal investigations or truth commissions using the transcripts of interrogation sessions to settle the issue of whether torture was used for actionable intelligence or to punish and intimidate our adversaries.

In the dramatic events in the Middle East of late, the same region where President George W. Bush failed in his nation-building quest to promote democracy, one wonders whether recent history may fulfill his vision. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have not called for the resignation of any of these Middle Eastern leaders, even in Libya, until Monday after Qaddafi lost physical control of most of the oil regions in the country. Perhaps we will learn about private pressures in the future. The United States never publicly called for Mubarak to step down; the president's special envoy, Frank Wisner, a lobbyist for Egyptian interests, said publicly that he should stay.

By some measures, Obama has been the U.S. president least committed to democratization in the past four decades. Carter pushed for democracy in Argentina. Reagan pushed Marcos out of the Philippines and the generals from South Korea, while ending military dictatorships and encouraging semi-democracies in Central America. George H.W. Bush supported protecting democracies against coups with the Santiago Declaration of June 5, 1991, and he oversaw the dismantling of communist Eastern Europe and the final round of democratic regime changes in Africa. Bill Clinton invoked the Santiago Declaration and led the invasion of Haiti to reestablish the democratically elected government of Jean Bertrand Aristide. While Bush was unsuccessful, he did try to promote democratic rule in the Middle East and Northwest Asia.

Rather than promoting democratic regime change in those countries with active pro-democracy protests, such as in Tunisia, Egypt, Oman, Yemen, Algeria, Bahrain, and Libya, Obama's policy has been to hedge its bets on the outcomes while protecting geopolitical interests. Only when the dictator is about to fall is the United States willing to take sides.  Certainly a factor in Obama’s hesitation is the fear that anti-U.S. Islamist parties will win elections, despite the examples of Turkey and Indonesia where these democracies have been strengthened by their presence.

Secretary of State Clinton admitted that the United States was not pushing democracy across the board in the Middle East, but making case-by-case decisions on what to do. Obama has adopted a nuanced reform strategy for these Middle Eastern transitions that are mostly containable by trusted military establishment. By their home-grown nature, their chances of success are much greater than Bush's attempts in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe Obama's predecessors would also have similarly not promoted democracy in the Middle East.

It is a mistake to conclude that Muslims cannot participate in a democratic society. We already have hundreds of thousands of Muslim democrats as a minority in India and as a majority in Indonesia and Turkey. In Libya, the United States wants to protect recently reacquired oil interests. In Egypt and Bahrain, American allies, especially Saudia Arabia and Israel, wanted the United States to support dictators in power for as long as possible rather than encourage democratization. The United States has not intervened militarily in these cases in part because it retains influence by funding these militaries.

If Obama told the military in Bahrain to stop shooting, then maybe it would, but he wants to protect the U.S. Fifth Fleet. If the United States told Qaddafi to stop shooting protestors, or if the Americans and the British stopped buying Libyan oil or investing in its oil industry and re-imposing sanctions, then Qaddafi might stop. Obama did not side with Iranian protestors after the 2009 election in an effort to encourage cooperation on the nuclear issue, but he has received none. In all these cases, the United States is more concerned with preventing disaster, even as opportunity for great reforms are present, with each country's army still committed to the U.S. agenda. The "solution" may be the militarized democracies of Central America—very far from ideal and at times murderous, but still on a trajectory away from autocracy and continuous polarization and terror.

Obama may be on the side of short-term order and stability since geopolitical factors supposedly support U.S. interests, rather than fully coming out in favor of democracy. The most compelling reason for his hesitation may be to avoid tarring the democratic movements with U.S. support. In this sense, by not taking sides, it is conceivable that the United States under Obama will do more for more for democracy than previous presidents, who might have established pseudo democracies, where the militaries remained powerful and abusive. On the other hand, these democratic transitions may be halted, such as the Egyptian military preventing free elections, as it takes credit for toppling Mubarak via an unacknowledged coup that supplemented the protests. If the United States does not send clear private signals that the militaries it funds should allow full electoral contests, then these Islamic parties will have a much stronger reason for not trusting democratic changes.

Ultimately, the largest test of democratization is not just what Obama has done, but also what the previous presidents would have done today. This recalls candidate Reagan’s election debate statement, which turned the polls in his favor away from incumbent President Jimmy Carter: “Are you better off today than four years ago?” Actually, the real question, instead of this rhetorical master-stroke, should have been, “Are you better off now, after four years of Carter, than you would have been had Gerald Ford been elected?” Given the two oil price shocks and the Iranian hostage crisis, would Ford have managed any better than Carter had?

It is quite possible that Reagan, both Bush presidents, and Clinton would have been just as inclined to protect U.S. interests, and those of Saudi Arabia and Israel, as the Obama administration has in this wave of Arab democratization. Instead of our persistent risk aversion to low-probability scenarios, the United States should give democratic forces in the Middle East its support and bet on their good chances of succeeding, all the while urging them to be democratic.

Henry "Chip" Carey is an associate professor of political science at Georgia State University.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user (David Katz/Obama for America).

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