Everyone (except the Saudis) points to Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf where the United States parks the Fifth Fleet. The ruling al-Khalifa family has brutally repressed demonstrations by the Shiite majority while dragging its feet on meaningful reforms. But Obama has never said this dictatorship must go; in fact, he has recently gone back to selling it weapons.
Only Libyans, liberated from Moammar Gaddafi with the help of U.S. planes, are ready to praise the president. “Without the decision of Obama to defend Benghazi, our revolution might not have succeeded,” said Mustafa Abushagur, now the deputy prime minister of a transitional government. But in the past few months the victorious rebels have been struggling to construct police forces and build a unified military. The Obama administration, they say, has been slow to help.
The Post’s deputy editorial page editor, Diehl also writes a biweekly foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.
Taken together, these disparate comments actually add up to a coherent critique. Obama’s biggest failing in the Arab Spring is not that he chose the wrong side; it is that he has waffled back and forth. He has been consistently indecisive, irresolute and reluctant to act. As a result he has alienated both regimes and revolutionaries, and squandered U.S. leverage.
Before pushing Mubarak out, Obama embraced him; now his aides are criticizing — but so far tolerating — the military’s attempts to hang on to power. Obama insists Assad must give up power and facilitates military aid for the rebels at the same time that he endorses a U.N.-brokered settlement between the regime and opposition. He demands change in Bahrain while continuing to back the regime even when it refuses to reform.
In short, Obama has made a difference during the Arab Spring mostly by not making a difference. By failing to decisively use U.S. aid, diplomatic influence and military power to support the removal of dictators and the beginning of democratic transformation, he has helped tip the balance toward the old regimes — or chaos. No, the mess is not his fault. But he deserves a share of the blame.