As the US presidential elections approach, the debate on America’s foreign policy, particularly on the Arab Spring, intensifies. The main issue between the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney camps is whether the US should or should not pursue a more aggressive foreign policy particularly in relation to the Syrian crisis. While the administration of Obama has so far preferred a non-action policy, the Romney campaign is pushing towards a more interventionist approach.
The Obama foreign policy team believes that the US should do nothing concerning the conflict in Syria between the regime of President Bashar Al Assad and the armed opposition and that intervention should occur as a last resort and only when US interests are threatened in a direct way.
A more aggressive foreign policy by Washington, the argument goes on, will generate more conflicts, more anti-American sentiments, and would eventually lead to the creation of anti-US coalitions, with Russia, China and Iran at the forefront. The Obama administration calls this approach a non-active balancing.
Here the matter is left to the regional powers rather than to the US to mange the transition. Concerning Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in particular should take the lead in the attempts to restore the regional balance of power which has been disturbed by the US invasion of Iraq and the rise of Iran’s power.
Obama’s strategy has been therefore not to intervene beyond providing limited covert support to the Syrian opposition, but rather to allow the regional balance to deal with the problem. Obama has expected the Saudis and Turks to act against Iran not because the US asks them to do so but because it is in their interest to do so.
The Romney camp does not simply agree. It argues that without an active US role, Washington might just be letting a golden opportunity to roll Iran’s influence back slip away. Regional powers alone cannot handle the Syrian conflict and that with the apparent lack of interest on the part of the US; Iran might get weakened but not defeated.
A delayed intervention in this eventuality will prove more costly for Washington than it might be at this stage of the conflict. The Romney campaign calls this approach active balancing. It needs to be pursued before the situation becomes so threatening or unstable that the US will have to intervene.
For Romney, an anti-US coalition is already in the making wherein Russia, China and Iran are closing ranks to challenge the US and its allies in Syria. Allowing the balance of power to take its own course only delays American intervention.
This argument underlies the key differences between the two US presidential candidates and seems to be mainly concerned with how to deal with Iran and protect US national interests.
Democracy promotion, protecting human rights and supporting the aspirations of the Arab people to live in dignity and freedom do not seem to be a matter of concern for the US foreign policy establishment.
Historically, democracy promotion in general has never been an end by itself for the US, rather the form of democracy promoted was, in most cases, narrow and thereby suitable for furthering US interests. This applies both to the US’s historical record and the role of democracy promotion as a ‘central theme’ in the foreign policy of any US administration since the Second World War.
The entire history of US relations with the Arab world shows that Washington has been involved more in undermining democratic regimes than fostering them. And, crucially, the driver for such a policy has been economic and strategic interests.
It is very difficult also to argue that the US attitude towards democracy promotion in the Middle East would change any time soon. In fact, Washington showed interest in democracy promotion in the Middle East only after the 9/11 attacks when democracy came to be seen as an effective way of enhancing US security.
This inclination did not last long. Washington decided to maintain the status quo, i.e. dealing with autocratic regimes. When the Arab Spring started from Tunisia, Washington decided to deal with it out of necessity, not conviction.
The focus of the argument between the two US presidential candidates concerning the Arab world reflects a long-standing tendency in the US foreign policy establishment.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Damascus.