Religion & the Path of Democratic Reform in the Arab-Muslim WorldPresident Barack Obama came to Cairo in 2009 with the purpose of announcing to the Arab-Muslim world that he was not following his predecessor’s “Democracy Project” as a matter of U.S. Middle East policy. One could call this Obama’s “Olive Branch Doctrine”: the message that interfaith tolerance & unity, rather than the insistence of religious freedom and democracy, would be the foreign policy model pursued by his Administration. In a stroke of illusory foreign policy realism, he was communicating to Arab Muslims that it was not the purpose of the United States to convert anyone to its way of thinking, politically or religiously.
In the midst of an astonishing Twitter and Facebook Revolution that has unleashed a frantic generational demand for democracy and regime change in many countries of the Middle East, including North Africa, the Arab-Muslim world has become a strategic chess match for ideological and political hegemony between the United States and the Mullah-ruled country of Iran. At stake is President Barack Obama’s overall foreign policy approach involving democratic reform, and the political vehicle being used to successfully propagate it—the Administration’s Internet Freedom Agenda.
But directly connected to it is his international religious freedom policy; and when tied to his overall approach to foreign policy one discovers an emerging “Obama Doctrine”—what I call “Obama’s Olive Branch Doctrine”—which relies on calculated notions of interfaith understanding and tolerance as the best components toward achieving democratic reform in today’s world, and specifically in the Arab-Muslim world.
Pundits claim that President Obama does not have a specifically enunciated foreign policy “doctrine,” per se, but it seems clear that one is emerging. To understand the religious aspect of Mr. Obama’s nascent, yet struggling, foreign policy, one must first understand it in context of the current political and revolutionary fervor sweeping the Arab world.
The Stakes Are High
Four days after Egypt’s bold revolutionary success, this chivalrous chess match became more vivid when our country’s President sharply contrasted Egypt’s reasonably peaceful revolution with Iran’s violent repression of its own protestors who have been calling for the overthrow of its clerical regime. He said, “I find it ironic that you’ve got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt, when in fact they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully.” The same day, the Iranian Parliament, from direct pressure by the country’s clerical rulers, called for the immediate execution of all opposition leaders. So much for freedom!
Siding with the United States in an effort to keep a strategic check on Iran are the autocratic monarchical rulers of Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab League, which makes up all the Gulf States, North Africa, and the Mediterranean corridor. Iran’s Persian-speaking Shias do not rub shoulders easily with the Sunni Arabs of the southern Mediterranean, whom they regard as their cultural inferiors. For now, Arab unrest appears to be enriching Iran’s power and influence over the chief Sunni proponent, Saudi Arabia.
Yet Saudi Arabia, while clearly nervous, acts cocksure that it will survive the current unrest. Saudi Arabia’s Interior Minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, boasted recently that “Saudi Arabia is immune to the protests because it is guided by religious law that its citizens will not question.” In addition, King Abdullah, upon his return from surgery in the United States, made available $37 billion dollars in assistance for those seeking to buy their first home, and other needs badly wanted by the people, as a gesture that he is willing to make major economic concessions in order to keep the peace and thus ensure the people’s loyalty to his monarchical rule.
But when the dust settles who will the real winner be? Iran? Or the young people of the Middle East, who have the opportunity to at last be free of their autocratic rulers, which is due in large part to the fast-paced technology coming from the West? Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, proclaimed that Islam and Islamic values was the winner in Egypt, proclaiming that an “Islamic Awakening” had occurred. For him it was an Allah-inspired beginning.
The editors of Economist magazine wryly noted that while Iran’s revolution of 1978-79 was Islamic to the core, Egypt’s was not – “or not yet.” This is because Mr. Khamenei believes that “the fall of Mr. Mubarak can only usher in a government less friendly to Israel and less of a ‘servant’ of the United States—a government more after Iran’s own revolutionary heart.” And he may be right, because the potential of “an alliance between revolutionary Iran and Islamist elements in a new Egyptian government” – or Tunisian, Moroccan, Yemeni, Omani, Saudi, Bahraini, Kuwaiti, Libyan, Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian governments – is not farfetched. This is clearly the concern of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah who—to the chagrin of the Obama administration—recently ordered 1,000 troops into neighboring Bahrain to quell the revolutionary unrest that is mostly led by Shiite Muslims. The King is sending the clear signal that he does not believe Mr. Obama is doing enough to back Bahrain’s royal family, and as David Sanger of The New York Times put it, has “little patience with American messages about embracing what Mr. Obama calls ‘universal values,’ including peaceful protests.”
Economist summed up the situation pretty well with this sobering description: “Iran already enjoys great influence in Lebanon through its proxy there, Hezbollah, and has warm relations with Hamas (itself an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) in Israel’s Gaza Strip. If Iran were able to make high-placed friends in Egypt, where Mr. Ahmadinejad is popular for defying the West, Israel’s sense of encirclement by its most formidable adversary would be almost complete.” Add to that mix Iranian influence with the predominantly Shiite countries of Bahrain and Yemen, and the potentially cascading unrest of Shiites in Saudi Arabia.
In this chess match, there are two overarching scenarios being bandied about by foreign policy experts. One optimistic scenario is that the widespread revolutionary movement of young protestors to overthrow and replace their countries’ autocratic regimes with freely elected and “friendly” democratic governments, will succeed, and in turn spill over and overtake Iran’s theocratic regime.
Another scenario is that with Iran’s supreme leader calling the current revolutionary storm an “Islamic Awakening,” this movement will lead to similar theocratically governed regimes all throughout the Middle East, with Sharia law becoming the radical anti-secular constitutional foundation. (In Tunisia, these demands are already being heard in mass protests, where, even though 98 percent of the population is Muslim, the culture is socially liberal and pervaded by Western lifestyles.) The strategic purpose outlined in this argument is that the Middle East will eventually be made up of mostly Islamist-ruled countries surrounding Israel on all sides.
Fareed Zakaria—more of a proponent of the first scenario described above—believes that this second scenario is unlikely because most Sunni and Shia Muslims located outside of Iran (with the exception of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon) do not want Iran’s thug-like theocratic government. They want, he said, what Turkey has and what Indonesia has – mixing together secular forms of democracy with laws enforcing strong Islamic moral values emanating from Sharia law, which claims to practice religious and ethnic tolerance in compliance with the United Nations Charter on Human Rights. (But do they? See part two of this article.)
Zakaria’s viewpoint, however salient, is easily offset. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported that at the outset of the revolutionary eruption in Tunisia, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “blasted Arab governments for stalled political change, warning that extremists were exploiting a lack of democracy to promote radical agendas across the Middle East.” Filling the vacuum, she said, are “extremist elements, terrorist groups and others who would prey off desperation and poverty.” Clinton warned that “the region’s foundations are sinking into the sand.”
Islamist groups have typically proven to be politically and socially more well organized and in a position to take advantage of democratic processes and changes that result from the peoples’ revolutionary demands. This puts them in a position to fill the void when dictators are overthrown and empowers them to hijack the sincere intentions of the revolutionaries and the revolution itself. How does this happen? As Elliot Abrams, former deputy national security advisor for President George W. Bush explains it, dictators “leave behind a civic culture that has been drastically weakened and moderate parties that are disorganized, impoverished, and without recognizable leaders.” Abrams observes: “For 30 years, President Hosni Mubarak told us to stick with him, or the opposition Muslim Brotherhood would grow stronger. Well, we stuck with him, and the Muslim Brotherhood grew stronger. As he crushed the political center and left, the Brotherhood became the main forum for opposition to his regime.” This, he argues, is what will allow the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to play a powerful role in whatever civilian government is elected once elections are actually held there. In addition, Iran is notoriously successful in supplying political and economic resources to its favored Islamist party in order to ensure electoral outcomes that favor their strategic gambit in the Middle East.
Israel is very concerned about this second possible scenario due to the fact that it has recently witnessed the seizing of the reins of government in Lebanon by Hezbollah, Iran’s well-funded and militarily supplied political apostle. This realistic fear of encirclement provoked Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to state that “even though its quiet and deterrence exists—Hezbollah remembers the heavy beating they suffered from us in 2006—but it is not forever.” We “may have to re-enter Lebanon,” he said.
For historian and former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, the stakes are higher when talking about a nuclear Iran, which, he observes, may mean that we are heading down the path toward nuclear “Armageddon.” Meacham argues that nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East could become more pronounced and globally destabilizing: “The more people with access to nuclear weapons increases the risk that irrationality will enter the equation; which is a polite way of saying that human forces—pride, ambition, fanaticism—will always confound the most elegant of geopolitical calculations.” “Armageddon” talk is not uncommon these days. Israel’s Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, believes that “if Iran gets nuclear weapons, the Middle East will look like hell.”
Of course, a third and less dire scenario postures that some autocratic rulers, like the Abdullah’s in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, might successfully convince protestors in their country that they will institute democratic and economic reforms, along with increased human rights provisions, and actually follow through. This explains why the Obama Administration has been strongly encouraging Arab rulers to listen to the protestors in their call for democratic reform and to refrain from violence in the attempt to restore order.
The question of who will win is also tied to Mr. Obama’s apparent break with the traditional U.S. policy of propping up autocratic regimes for the sake of preserving international security and the flow of oil in a terrorist charged world. For example, there has been evident tension between Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and Barack Obama over Obama’s handling of Hosni Mubarak’s standing in Egypt during the Egyptian revolt.
The United States is definitely in a tough spot. Mr. Obama admonished autocratic leaders, both “friend and foe alike,” to “get out ahead of change” because “the world is changing.” He said that advances in freedom of communication through smart phones, Facebook and Twitter were forcing governments to act with the consent of the people, and that they could not afford to be “behind the curve.” Admittedly, however, the swiftness of the current unrest in the Middle East has also caught Mr. Obama off guard; this, even despite Mr. Obama’s foresight in August of 2010 to assign a special commission to study all of the best innovative approaches to democratically reform the Arab-Muslim world.
But that is not how he began his presidency in 2009.
Cairo & the Emergence of the “Olive Branch Doctrine”
It was in Turkey, and then Cairo, barely five months into the first full year of his presidency, that Mr. Obama confidently launched his foreign policy legacy and his diplomatic push for democratic reform in the Arab-Muslim Middle East, using Turkey and Indonesia as models of democracy – “road maps” that the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East, including Egypt, should emulate.
On June 4, 2009, in a speech before Egypt’s government, military and religious leaders titled “A New Beginning,” Mr. Obama put forward his policy goals affecting this volatile region. In it, he stressed political, civil, and economic freedom: “I have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from people; the freedom to live as you choose.” The primary purpose of the speech was to address the matter of religious freedom and tolerance. (As we shall see, he frequently interchanged these terms to meet the Arab-Muslim community half-way.)
Yet, in a bit of historical irony, Mr. Obama came to Cairo in 2009 with the purpose of announcing to the Arab-Muslim world that during his presidency he was not following his predecessor’s “Democracy Project” as a matter of U.S. Middle East policy. One could call this Obama’s “Olive Branch” doctrine. The message was that religious tolerance, rather than the insistence of religious freedom and democracy, would be the foreign policy model pursued by the Obama Administration. By “religious tolerance” was meant that Mr. Obama, in a stroke of supposed foreign policy realism—as opposed to President George W. Bush’s and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s idealism  —was communicating to Egyptians and all of the Arab-Muslim world that it was not the purpose of the United States to try to convert anyone to its way of thinking, politically or religiously.
Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak, praised President Obama’s speech, saying that it demonstrated that Obama understood the complexities that existed between freedom and tolerance in the Arab-Muslim world, and that he was an American president that Arab leaders could trust. He said, “Under the past administration there was a feeling that the Islamic world was a group of terrorists, Islam was hated and Muslims should be watched and that the previous administration was scared of any Muslim.” “But,” he observed, “Obama came and said, ‘We will not fight Muslims and Islam.’” He said that this was because “He is a sympathetic man” who believes that “Islam is a heavenly religion.” Mubarak concluded that Mr. Obama’s attempt to reach out to the Arab-Muslim world placed the United States in a more positive light in the eyes of individual Muslims, and not just with Arab leaders. Mubarak’s words were uncannily predictive of something to come, something that included him and the country he governed for nearly 30 years.
On one hand, by reversing course and disavowing President Bush’s idealistic approach of promoting through force, if necessary, the American constitutional ideal of religious freedom and human rights, and the American democratic way of life, the Muslim peoples of the Arab-Muslim Middle East have seen a political opening to take things into their own hands. In a shared cause of resistance to Western leaders who have been perceived – however erroneously – as wanting (since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq) to supplant Islam and their way of life, the people no longer see the need of continuing to harness their “strong horse” dictators whom Western leaders have propped up for years in the name of regional stability and security. 
On the other hand, by trying to avoid the failed U.S. democratic projects of the past that brought a militant Islamic Hamas and Hezbollah to the borders of Israel, it created a political wedge, forcing the hands of U.S. policymakers to choose between the Arab-Muslim people’s quest for political and religious autonomy to direct their own path, and their autocratic rulers, who have been valued by the U.S. as their most strategic ally against Muslim extremists and terrorists. By communicating caution and patience in the midst of the revolutionary demands of the people, this “safe” approach initially caused many of the protesters in Egypt to accuse Mr. Obama and the United States, including European leaders, of hypocrisy. To be sure, the strategic chess game that Mr. Obama is playing is full of unanticipated choices and dicey moves, but this placed Barack Obama and his administration in the untenable position of being perceived as “Johnny-come-lately” champions of the people’s revolution.  Admittedly, while it was a nearly impossible balancing act not inconsistent with the administrative approaches and experiences of past U.S. presidents, including Ronald Reagan,  this confusing and unsteady pattern (i.e., “bungling” to his critiques) – whether real or perceived – risks having the Carteresque effect of permanently shaping a key part of Mr. Obama’s presidential legacy and making whatever foreign policy influence remains seem fairly weak in the eyes of his electoral opposition in the U.S., including world leaders and the international community.
Paul Wolfowitz, former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, recently observed in an exclusive interview on CNN with Fareed Zakaria that Mr. Obama and his administration must get away from an apologetic, “hand-wringing,” approach to U.S. foreign policy, and in particular his “hands-off” posture of neutrality in the Middle East which was the essence of his “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo in 2009, the foundational framework for Mr. Obama’s foreign policy in the Muslim world. He said that the president should move full tilt toward reviving some version of former President Bush’s “Project Democracy,” and to quit trying to pick winners – Royal Monarchies like Bahrain, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, as opposed to Presidents like in Egypt and Yemen – in a new Middle East.  He argued that if Mr. Obama does not do this, the void left in a transformed Arab-Muslim world is one which the Mullah’s of Iran will exploit to their natural electoral advantage. Wolfowitz stressed that “the United States must be there” to compete with Iran’s proven ability to insert itself into the affairs of other countries of the Arab-Muslim Middle East (Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, and the Shiite majority in Iraq) where they have the potential to reshape it in its own radical image.  For Wolfowitz, this is also true of Al Qaeda in a potentially chaotic aftermath in Libya unless the United States, with the international community, inserts itself into the equation in both humanitarian and military ways. 
Obama’s Interfaith Vision
President Obama appears to have a foreign policy objective in mind toward advancing democracy and democratic reform throughout the world, and particularly in the Arab-Muslim Middle East, but not exactly in the way that Mr. Wolfowitz had in mind. If there is one move President Obama seems to be counting on, it is the promise he sees in both Indonesia and Turkey as models for bringing both the East and West together, no matter how inferior it is to the American ideal, and it is the basis for the “Obama Doctrine.” It represents a subtle yet distinct shift toward religious “tolerance,” away from the ideal of “freedom” – or somewhere in-between – as the national and international norm.
It is a rather optimistic model that is rarely recognized or understood by pundits, foreign policy scholars, and the media – left, right, and center. It is a grand strategy that quietly sails through the criticism in a steady and self-convinced manner, representing Obama’s clear affinity with the young protestors – not only for their yearning for freedom and democracy, but risking even dumping a century’s worth of U.S. support for Arab dictators, their oil (i.e., think alternative energy), and global stability – to support his and their shared yearning to engineer an interfaith approach to solving the world’s religious and political conflicts. Mr. Obama sees it as the best possible means toward achieving world peace—the one last ray of hope in Mr. Obama’s heart and mind, a hope that matches what an Obama biographer, Stephen Mansfield, described in The Faith of Barack Obama as the “eclectic” multi-faith experience that is Mr. Obama based on his upbringing and personal life’s journey. 
According to Mansfield, the President’s foreign and domestic policy strategies appear irreversibly connected to his pluralistic religious experiences—Catholic, Islamic, Atheistic, and Pentecostal—and his years of doing community and social work. This in turn informs his intellect, his decision-making and communication style, and more specifically his Kumbaya togetherness or collective interfaith approach to foreign policy: the all-too-familiar “let’s just get along” appeal.  This is evidenced by Mr. Obama’s Cairo speech emphasizing “A New Beginning”:
I am convinced that in order to move forward, we must say openly to each other the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, ‘Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.’ (Applause.) That is what I will try to do today – to speak the truth as best I can, humbled by the task before us, and firm in my belief that the interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that drive us apart. 
Ideally speaking, this interfaith approach that he hopes will appeal to a new and vibrant generation of young people in the Middle East and around the globe, presumes to bring most people of faith together in the quest for shared democratic and economic values (i.e., world peace), with the affect of forming the most vocal and powerful political force the world has ever seen.
According to a CBS News column published by The Washington Post, President Obama is “preparing for the prospect that Islamist governments will take hold in North Africa and the Middle East, acknowledging that the popular revolutions there will bring a more religious cast to the region’s politics.” This includes “distinguishing between various movements in the region that promote Islamic law in government.” One senior administration official stated that “We shouldn’t be afraid of Islam in the politics of these countries. It’s the behavior of political parties and government that we will judge them on, not their relationship with Islam.”  Harvard Professor Tarek Masoud believes that “if Muslims” in Egypt actually “got into power, if they go into parliament, they’d try to make some laws that conform with their vision of what Islam requires,” but “they would not,” in keeping with Sunni Muslim religious and political tradition, “try to have the clerics be in charge,” which he says is opposite from the Shiite model in Iran. 
But in President Obama’s overarching argument for a “new beginning” with Islam, “is the clear suggestion that Islamic belief and democratic politics are not incompatible.” After disavowing Bush’s democracy promotion in his June 2009 address at Cairo University, President Obama gave sanction to this sentiment when he said that Bush’s approach did not “lessen my commitment to governments that reflect the will of the people,” adding that “each nation gives life to the principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people.” This demonstrates, to a certain degree, that Obama realizes that the Shiite model of governing in Iran – a cleric controlled government – is not acceptable in a democratic world. In addition, it seems clear that this is Obama’s way of trying an untried approach to bridge the chasm in today’s “Clash of Civilizations” between the Christian West and the Muslim East.
But this approach is alarming to European Union and NATO leaders, as well as Israel, because of the inevitability that “religious law will undercut democratic reforms and other Western values.” Both liberal and conservative foreign policy pragmatists warn that the President’s approach “fails to take into consideration the methodological approach many such [Islamist] parties adopt toward gradually transforming secular nations into Islamic states at odds with U.S. [and European] policy goals.” Again, think Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. That is why Hillary Clinton warned in Geneva, that if Islamist parties seek to participate in the region’s future elections, “Political participation must be open to all people across the spectrum who reject violence, uphold equality and agree to play by the rules of democracy.”  Playing by the rules of democracy, that is the big test. It is a test that has never been met by any Arab Muslim nation in the Middle East.
Finally, President Obama’s approach is one that will continue to dog him as he bumps up against the ideal of American exceptionalism in his own country. In the end, Obama’s foreign policy approach to the Arab-Muslim world will either end up backfiring against his intended hopes and desires, or as few believe, a wave of interfaith harmony among Sunni and Shiite Muslims will occur in their seeming quest for democracy and western democratic values. This latter scenario is not realistic or likely. Stay tuned for Part Two of this article series titled: “Obama’s Olive Branch Doctrine: Interfaith Tolerance and the Reshaping of U.S. Foreign Policy.”