Despite the political back-and-forth that has dominated foreign policy discussion over the last decade, administrations from both sides of the aisle have maintained largely the same policy objectives, with only slight variation around the edges. Wars fought for the sake of spreading democracy under George W. Bush are now wars to protect human rights under the Obama administration. Engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, once called ‘dumb wars’ by the current President, have been continued with deference to the previous administration’s policy (as in Iraq) or with increased vigor (the case with Afghanistan). The newest battle joined by US forces, this time in Libya, faces a potential mission creep that could bring our involvement there on a level with that of Iraq or Afghanistan. Libya is only the most pressing example of the developing trend of populist Middle Eastern uprisings, with Egypt, Syria, and Yemen all being considered for American action. Our current administration must resist these urges, the Arab spring is not our fight.
Afghanistan was our fight because of 9-11. Iraq was our fight due to the necessity to finish the job from a decade previous. The uprisings that constitute the ‘Arab Spring’ are the internal affairs of those sovereign nations. Though the United States certainly has a vested interest in the outcome of these uprisings (as well as in Iran), and would welcome a wave of secular democracies within the Middle East, the, US policy makers must recognize that the ideal outcome is far from the most likely outcome in this scenario. There is a great difference between Islamic populism, the force that appears to be carrying the day in the Arab Spring, and a democracy that respects the rights of all its citizens to life, liberty, and religious freedom. Violence in Egypt against women and other minorities after the so-called liberation of the Egyptian people shows that while the US is now contending with a new leadership (or soon will be) in a host of Middle Eastern countries, the new leadership in the Middle East is far from likely to be amenable to American interests.
The Middle East will likely be in convulsion for months and years to come, and the United States must let the uprisings run their course. Many will argue, be they Neoconservatives or Progressives, that we have the responsibility to protect the people of the Arab world from potential genocides and civil wars, or that we have a responsibility to spread democracy, or civilization to the world. While these intentions are certainly noble, US policy makers must remember that their first responsibility to the American citizenry, and the defense thereof. In a time of grave economic crisis, spending copious sums of taxpayer dollars attempting to affect positive change in a region of the world that will always be a problem for the United States is not sound policy. The United States in 2001 and 2003 could afford, both geopolitically and economically, to launch sustained efforts in the Middle East. We now face a different reality.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Our policy regarding the Middle East has remained the same under administrations claiming to be from polar opposite ends of the American political spectrum. This is far from the truth. A new course in the Middle East is needed, however, as the situation on the ground in the Arab world is increasingly fluid. American policy makers must reevaluate our policies and ongoing operations in the Middle East, and continually weigh if they are in the best interests of the American people.