Monday, August 22, 2011

Obama's prescience about the Arab Spring

In looking for the origin of the quote below about leading from behind, I found this article by Ryan Lizza titled The Consequentialist. Its a great read - taking you through a lot of the White House process on dealing with the Middle East.

But I found one section of it fascinating. Its probably best if I just let Lizza tell the story.

On August 12, 2010, Obama sent a five-page memorandum called “Political Reform in the Middle East and North Africa” to Vice-President Joseph Biden, Clinton, Gates, Donilon, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the other senior members of his foreign-policy team. Though the Iranian regime had effectively crushed the Green Revolution, the country was still experiencing sporadic protests. Egypt would face crucial parliamentary elections in November. The memo began with a stark conclusion about trends in the region.

“Progress toward political reform and openness in the Middle East and North Africa lags behind other regions and has, in some cases, stalled,” the President wrote. He noted that even the more liberal countries were cracking down on public gatherings, the press, and political opposition groups. But something was stirring. There was “evidence of growing citizen discontent with the region’s regimes,” he wrote. It was likely that “if present trends continue,” allies there would “opt for repression rather than reform to manage domestic dissent.”

Obama’s analysis showed a desire to balance interests and ideals. The goals of reform and democracy were couched in the language of U.S. interests rather than the sharp moral language that statesmen often use in public. “Increased repression could threaten the political and economic stability of some of our allies, leave us with fewer capable, credible partners who can support our regional priorities, and further alienate citizens in the region,” Obama wrote. “Moreover, our regional and international credibility will be undermined if we are seen or perceived to be backing repressive regimes and ignoring the rights and aspirations of citizens.”

Obama instructed his staff to come up with “tailored,” “country by country” strategies on political reform. He told his advisers to challenge the traditional idea that stability in the Middle East always served U.S. interests. Obama wanted to weigh the risks of both “continued support for increasingly unpopular and repressive regimes” and a “strong push by the United States for reform.”

He also wrote that “the advent of political succession in a number of countries offers a potential opening for political reform in the region.” If the United States managed the coming transitions “poorly,” it “could have negative implications for U.S. interests, including for our standing among Arab publics.”

The review was led by three N.S.C. staffers: Samantha Power, Gayle Smith, who works on development issues, and Dennis Ross, a Middle East expert with a broad portfolio in the White House. Soon, they and officials from other agencies were sitting in the White House, debating the costs and benefits of supporting autocrats. A White House official involved said the group studied “the taboos, all the questions you’re not supposed to ask.” For example, they tested the assumption that the President could not publicly criticize President Hosni Mubarak because it would jeopardize Egypt’s co√∂peration on issues related to Israel or its assistance in tracking terrorists. Not true, they concluded: the Egyptians pursued peace with Israel and crushed terrorists because it was in their interest to do so, not because the U.S. asked them to.

They tested the idea that countries with impoverished populations needed to develop economically before they were prepared for open political systems—a common argument that democracy promoters often run up against. Again, they concluded that the conventional wisdom was wrong. “All roads led to political reform,” the White House official said.

The group was just finishing its work, on December 17th, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable vender in Tunisia, set himself on fire outside a municipal building to protest the corruption of the country’s political system––an act that inspired protests in Tunisia and, eventually, the entire region. Democracy in the Middle East, one of the most fraught issues of the Bush years, was suddenly the signature conflict of Obama’s foreign policy.

I think I remember hearing something about the review written by Power, Smith and Ross. But I didn't know about the memo President Obama wrote that sparked it. And, of course, its interesting to think about the President writing a 5-page memorandum.

He knew "something was stirring" and that there would be the "potential for political reform in the region." Boy was he right!

Sometimes this guy just blows my mind.


  1. It is so impressive how he seem to know stuff that others around him simply don't grasp. I'm so glad that he was on top of this and that his staff performed so admirably by thinking out of the box on the Middle East and Africa. Bold and gutsy and so very intelligent. Bush never would have even realized there was a problem to begin with, or would have just made one up to further his goals. We are so blessed to have President Obama.

    Great article, Smartypants.

  2. Tien

    That was exactly my reaction when I read this - we are blessed!

  3. What foresight are intelligent president had!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. My, God, I thank you for blessing us with a President that is a visionary, humble, caring, beautiful family, kind heart. You knew that we would need someone like this about the blunder years of Bush. It must be awesome to work with an intelligent mind and he gets no credit on MSM. But, Mr.President, take heart. God records and rewards. We love you and we thank God for you

  5. It is ironic that Ryan Lizza published that piece on May 2, the day after bin Laden's killing. The entire piece reads as a hit piece on President Obama's leadership style. He truly sucked up to Hillary Clinton. In this entire lengthy piece he could not find a single person who firmly argued the President's position on anything?

    First it was Bill Clinton's snide comment re Holbrooke, then it was the latter's widow's negative comments, then it was Wisner, then, the State Dept aide who resigned, then Brzezinski's disappointment. So why did Lizza bother writing about a President's whose foreign policy reasoning he was uninterested in discovering?

    Well as Karma would have it, much of Lizza's griping became moot the day the article came out. And it is even more damning that the paper and article went to bed before the bin Laden bombshell, so no chance to revise anything in this hit piece. And here we have it; a beltway shallow name-dropping diatribe masquerading as analysis!

  6. This is yet another (of many) examples of why I don't leap to criticize this President every time a news story comes out, even if I happen to feel it's not what I like or want. A little patience on my part usually shows that the initial story wasn't quite what it seemed, or he was right. Of course the benefit is that after getting some flack from various people about my support, I get to indulge in "I told you so."

  7. Do you think our most recent former President or any of the "leading" candidates for the Republican nomination ever have, or are even capable of that much depth of thought on any subject, much less one of such consequence and complexity? When you govern by bumper sticker slogan, nuance is kind of impossible. Thank God for this President.