The President is failing his own test of leadership in response to the Arab Spring, says FPI Executive Director Jamie Fly

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Although more reticent about democracy promotion than his predecessor George W. Bush, President Barack Obama made engagement of the Muslim world a centerpiece of his early foreign travels, most clearly in his Cairo speech of June 2009, in which he pledged to "seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world" and stated that the United States would support fundamental freedoms everywhere.

But when confronted with the stark choice of supporting the regimes or backing the cell phone touting masses who took to the region's streets beginning in Tunisia in December 2010, the president wavered. Time after time, he hesitated, just as he had in June 2009 when the people of Iran sought to topple the ruling clerical regime.

Although he eventually corrected U.S. policy in some cases, backing the ouster of erstwhile allies, it was often too late, with those now taking over control questioning whether America was truly on their side. This was embodied in the refusal of young Egyptian activists to meet with senior U.S. officials in the months that followed Hosni Mubarak's ouster and their pelting of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's convoy with tomatoes during her visit to Alexandria in July 2012.

The secular opposition in some countries was fractured and had difficulty coalescing, making U.S. support even more important, but often the funding and support did not follow as quickly as offered. With the emergence of Islamist leaders in some countries, most notably Egypt, it became even more difficult to shape the aftermath of these revolutions. The administration seemed hesitant to effectively use the leverage it had with these countries, reluctant to use arms sales to Bahrain or aid to Egypt to back up American values with action for fear of provoking the governments in question.

This was even more apparent in the revolutions that evolved into civil wars. In Libya, after some initial reluctance to get involved, the president pivoted and authorized a military effort to protect civilians that eventually led to the demise of Muammar Qadhafi. The administration's desire to overlearn the lessons of Iraq led to a hands off approach to postconflict Libya. The nascent Libyan government was essentially left on its own, with little assistance to rein in the militias and weapons proliferation that came as a result of NATO's air operation and the president's refusal to put boots on the ground. In Syria, the United States has stood by as tens of thousands have been killed, not willing to back up President Obama's demands that Bashar al-Assad step down with American action.

The common thread that weaves together the U.S. response to the Arab Spring has thus been unwillingness by the Obama administration to assertively lead. The people of the region, from the streets to the halls of power, have far too often been left to question America's commitment to their cause and to wonder what U.S. policy is toward their countries. This has created a vacuum in which other actors have attempted to fill the void, often in ways that do not comport with U.S. interests. It also has weakened America's standing in the region and in the broader world and created costs that the United States will likely have to deal with for years to come. As one Syrian near the besieged city of Aleppo told The Washington Post in August, "America will pay a price for this. America is going to lose the friendship of Syrians, and no one will trust them anymore. Already we don't trust them at all."

In March 2011, explaining his decision to intervene in Libya to the American people, President Obama said, "Wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States. Ultimately, it is that faith–those ideals–that are the true measure of American leadership."

In his response to the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring, the president is failing his own test of American leadership.

- Originally written for U.S. News and World Report's Debate Club

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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