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American Foreign Policy & Arab Spring

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The Arab Spring and U.S. Foreign Policy

The Middle East has historically been a region of not only conflict & unrest, but also a region dominated by the rule of despots, autocrats, dictators & monarchies.  The political leaders of the various countries that make up the middle east have always ruled their spheres of influence with policies as harsh and unforgiving as some of the terrain lived in by their constituents. Despite decades of fundamental human rights being denied to their citizens, or some argue because of it, a seemingly democratic revolution that upheaved decades of entrenched political regimes swept across the region, with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the various potential outcomes. Would America’s foreign policy support the will of the peoples’ quest for democratic reforms & fundamental human rights as its rhetoric has espoused for so many years? Or would regional pragmatism dampen its’ usual vocal enthusiasm for a country’s right to self-determination? It seems like much of todays world, the answer to that question is inconsistent from one example to the next, depending upon the nuances that comprise those differences. As such, we will examine the scenarios for each on a case-by-case paradigm, teasing out the most important details of each situation to determine how the U.S. reached its decisions, and if more, or less, should have been done to reach a more favorable outcome for all involved parties.

The Arab Spring was sparked on December 17th, 2010, in Tunisia. In a small, outdoor market place, a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi, was looking to sell fruits to provide for his family. Corrupt police officials demanded he pay bribes to overlook his lack of official business documentation, which he refused. He lacked official paperwork because the process was so unnecessarily cumbersome, expensive & lengthy that an overwhelming majority of the merchants in the country also lack official government paperwork, putting them all at risk at victimization from corrupt officials seeking a hand out. When the police confiscated his inventory for not paying their bribes, he decided to bring attention to his plight & mistreatment through public self-immolation. The dramatic video from that event went viral on social media platforms, and galvanized others who felt oppressed by an unfair system to organize public demonstrations calling for reforms.

The demonstrations grew in numbers, of demonstrators and in the number of cities hosting them, and the events garnered international media attention. Tunisia’s democratic uprising were not only the first, but also the shortest in length and had the least amount of violence. Tunisia’s president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled to Saudi Arabia just 28 days after the incident that sparked the initial protests, catching everyone off guard by the speed with which the incident developed.[1] “In Tunisia, where little was at stake for the United States, senior officials were still saying that the U.S. was “not taking sides” as late as two days before Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s fall. After Ben Ali fled on January 14, 2011, taking refuge in Saudi Arabia, the Obama administration quickly adapted, expressing its support for the revolution. The U.S. could live without the Tunisian regime, but could it live without a staunch ally like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a dogged opponent of Iran and a stalwart supporter of the Arab-Israeli peace process?”[2]

        In Egypt, as referenced above, America found that it’s more developed relationship with nuanced history made a clear decision based on our values not as easily attainable when the Arab Spring revolutions quickly spread to that country. “On January 31st, over 250,000 demonstrators occupied Tahrir Square and vowed to stay there until Mubarek stepped down.” The U.S.’s initial response to the news was to support their long-time ally in the region, but “on February 1st, President Obama signaled a loss of confidence in his leadership. On February 11th, his departure from office brought cheers around the country”.[3]

        Inspired by the successful ouster of Mubarek in Egypt, literally on that same day, Libyans began to protest against their own despot, Muammar al-Qaddafi. Also around that time is when the Syrians began to organize mass protests in hopes of ridding themselves of their autocratic ruling family, the Bashads. Neither of the revolutions in these 2 countries proceeded at the same swift pace as Tunisia’s and Egypt, mostly because of the violent reactions by the 2 rulers who refused to abdicate power peacefully. In Lybia, the US was able to gather a first support of the UN Security Council, and then a NATO coalition that defended the rebels from promised mass slaughter with bombing campaigns on Qaddafi’s military assets.[4] This sustained air support weakened Qaddafi’s ability to fend off the rebels with his own military, and after a many months, was eventually discovered to be hiding in his hometown, where he was beaten in the streets by a mob and shot in the head by a young Libyan man. Despite the fact that the US spearheaded the both the UN resolution and provided the intel for the NATO forces to act upon, Obama was criticized for his “leading from behind” policy, where America’s influence and initiative to act on its’ own seemed to have been lessened in deference to a global consensus.[5]

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