Commentary Magazine


So Much for Dictator Engagement

Elliott Abrams gets to the heart of why the Obama administration has been caught flat-footed by the recent revolts in the Arab world:

U.S. officials talked to Mubarak plenty in 2009 and 2010, and even talked to the far more repressive President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, but they talked about their goals for Israeli-Palestinian peace and ignored the police states outside the doors of those presidential palaces. When the Iranian regime stole the June 2009 elections and people went to the streets, the Obama administration feared that speaking out in their support might jeopardize the nuclear negotiations. The “reset” sought with Russia has been with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, not the Russian people suffering his increasingly despotic and lawless rule.

This has been the greatest failure of policy and imagination in the administration’s approach: Looking at the world map, it sees states and their rulers, but has forgotten the millions of people suffering under and beginning to rebel against those rulers. “Engagement” has not been the problem, but rather the administration’s insistence on engaging with regimes rather than with the people trying to survive under them.

Abrams wonders if the Obama administration will now realize that “dictatorships are never truly stable.” It’s hard to say. Let’s not forget that Obama viewed Egypt as the pinnacle of Muslim Middle East stability. So much so that he chose to make his “address to the Muslim world” from Cairo, despite criticism that he’d be bolstering a dictatorship.

Clearly, from the assorted and contradictory messages coming out of the State Department and White House today, the administration has yet to catch up to events, let alone decide on a future policy course. The rest of the world cares little about lame-duck comebacks, moving memorial speeches, and State of the Union sales pitches. Obama cannot campaign his way into meaningful foreign policy. If he fails to support genuinely the forces of freedom and democracy in the Middle East, the region’s democrats won’t be consoled by sunny rhetoric any more than police states will be cowed by the occasional and vague mention of “political reform.”

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