Is There Any Such Thing as Progressive US Foreign Policy in the Middle East?

The Obama administration’s Mideast foreign policy has not been as progressive as promised. The US progressive movement must reconcile positions on US foreign policy that often support US imperial projects abroad with its push for social justice at home.

At the start of his presidency, Barack Obama raised expectations for a more progressive US foreign policy. Many were sure his approach would break ranks with the Bush administration. Some even hoped he would set a new course for US relations with the Arab and Muslim world.

Nearly four years later, Obama’s Mideast foreign policy bears little resemblance to these expectations. Sadly, many progressives seem unconcerned, a worrying but unsurprising trend.

It all began with Obama’s inauguration address, which featured cautionary, though not confrontational, advice for America’s adversaries: “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.”

In a welcome move, Obama made a thinly veiled reference to diplomacy with Iran: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

He quickly followed these promising words with concrete actions. In his first phone call to a foreign leader as president, Obama reached out to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. As one of his first political appointments in office, Obama named former US senator George Mitchell, the architect of the Northern Ireland peace accords, as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace.

In his first interview as president, Obama sat down with Arab television station Al Arabiya and vowed to launch a “new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest” with the Arab and Muslim world. When asked “how far” the United States would go to prevent a “nuclear Iran,” Obama expressed the need for “talk[ing] to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress.”

In early June 2009, President Obama traveled to Cairo, where he made his now famous speech to the Muslim world vowing to seek a “new beginning” and calling for a “sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground.”

These gestures were unprecedented. Never before had a US president begun his first term with strong and consistent gestures of friendship to the Muslim and Arab world, given such high priority to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and clearly expressed interest in speaking directly with the Iranian government.

Unfortunately, in the years since this heady start, the “spring” of Obama’s presidency has taken a more discouraging turn. The Middle East peace process has stalled, and US-Iran relations are at their lowest ebb in 30 years. Coming under pressure from a Congress unhappy with his diplomatic approach, in late 2009/early 2010, Obama’s unclenched hand toward Iran slowly became a fist. The administration withdrew its support from interim confidence-building measures brokered by Turkey and Brazil and began pursuing punitive sanctions against Iran in the United Nations. In June 2010, the UN Security Council gave its blessing, approving a new round of sanctions against Iran.

Tensions continued to building in 2011. By the end of the year, the president, once so circumspect about the prospect of war with Iran, was now affirmatively suggesting its possibility. Since then, the sabers have come fully unsheathed and the drums of war against Iran have been pounding in the US political sphere.

As for the Arab uprisings of the past year, US support has been inconsistent at best and woefully absent at worst. Meanwhile, in Yemen and Pakistan, Obama has taken the US drone program to new levels, resulting in concomitant increases in civilian casualties.

Far from carrying the progressive mantle, Obama has adopted policies toward the region that have been anathema to the progressive movement’s basic principles. Political progressivism supports the pursuit of transparent, accountable government, an end to the influence of big business and an emphasis on issues of social justice. On each of these scores, Obama’s Mideast foreign policy has failed.

On the issues of accountability and transparency, the US drone program looms large; it has targeted American citizens abroad and engendered a new form of asymmetrical warfare that has thickened the fog of impunity surrounding the US military.

In terms of special interest groups, Obama’s Mideast policy has hardly been spared their stultifying influence. As Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer noted in their groundbreaking book, “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy,” American approaches to the Middle East often “reflected Israel’s preferences.” At the behest of the Israeli government and the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, the Obama administration has withdrawn its demand for a halt to Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank and has all but abandoned any hope of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this term.

On issues of social justice, Obama has eschewed concerns with human rights in the region for the sake of feeding America’s insatiable need for oil and maintaining a ready market for US weapons. As of June 2012, US weapons sales abroad reached a record $50 billion. Three-fifths of these sales went to Saudi Arabia alone, a country known for its repressive human-rights practices. After suspending sales to Bahrain because of crackdowns against pro-democracy protesters, the US government resumed weapons sales to the country in May 2012. Despite cosmetic gestures toward reform, the Bahraini government has continued to suppress the country’s fledgling democracy movement, recently sentencing a prominent opposition activist to three years in prison for participating in anti-government protests.

Although some notable progressives, such as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, have recognized and opposed these trends in Obama’s Mideast policy, many have barely batted an eyelash. While clinging to the progressive banner, numerous members of the movement have turned a blind eye to the administration’s regional foreign policy and have focused, instead, on Obama’s more progressive domestic policies, such as support for gay marriage and universal health care. Other progressives have actively supported Obama’s foreign policy approach to the Mideast, lauding his push for the 2011 NATO offensive in Libya, among other things.

These reactions to Obama’s Mideast policies reflect a deeper and more insidious phenomenon of regressive foreign policy within the progressive movement. For instance, the Truman National Security Project, a well-known DC think tank, has been lauded by many progressives as a bastion of forward-thinking foreign policymaking in the United States: the group’s active promotion of continued US military interventionism abroad is neither concerning nor contradictory for these supporters.

Then there are the politicians. Aside from a few Congressional members, most nationally recognizable, progressive political figures support a Mideast foreign policy that is in step with the Obama administration, and, therefore, lacking in real progressive vision.

These trends in progressive foreign policy find their roots in the very history of political progressivism. Since its inception in the late 1890s, the US progressive movement has largely been domestically focused. While it has frequently taken stances on US foreign policy issues, these positions have often contradicted the movement’s domestic policy approach. As such, US progressives have at times ignored, or even supported, US imperial projects abroad while pushing for social justice at home.

For instance, during the Spanish-American War of 1898, notable members of the progressive movement supported US interventionism and resulting American control over the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. The progressive movement also largely supported President Woodrow Wilson’s imperialist policies, including US intervention in the Mexican Revolution and the American invasions of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This all at a time when progressives were pushing for women’s suffrage, more decent labor conditions, and other prototypically “progressive” policies at home.

For many progressives, these ongoing tensions between issues of domestic and foreign policy have been mitigated through a focus on process. By pushing for certain procedural requirements in the foreign policy realm – that is, diplomacy and multilateralism – some progressives have diminished the importance of substantive content and recklessly applied the “progressive” label to unsavory policies.

Political procedures cannot, however, transform regressive or conservative positions into progressive ones. Members of the movement would hardly accept the elimination of Medicare or a reduction in the minimum wage simply because electoral democracy was used to achieve the result. Similarly, while diplomacy and multilateralism remain important, issues of substance are crucial to any truly progressive foreign policy agenda.

So, what would a progressive US foreign policy toward the Middle East look like? As a first step, it would more equitably balance US interests with social justice issues. The Arab Spring has provided a unique opportunity to recast US relations with the region in terms of economic justice, human rights and civil liberties. A progressive foreign policy approach toward the region would reflect these values. It would also confront the influence of special interests that have disproportionately skewed America’s regional policy toward issues of oil, nuclear weapons and terrorism.

A regressive approach to foreign policy amounts to social justice for some, a position unacceptable to most true members of the progressive movement. While applying different standards to domestic and foreign policy may be consistent with the movement’s historical roots, in a globalized world, inconsistencies in political policies abroad undermine progressivism at home. While the Middle East and North Africa will undoubtedly remain strategically important to the United States for the foreseeable future, the progressive movement is unlikely to present a consistent and coherent platform for political change in this country unless it takes a truly progressive approach in its policy toward the region and the world at large.