POLITICS
12/18/2015 06:59 pm ET

Barack Obama Reminds GOP Critics He Didn't Start The Arab Spring

The president fired back at GOP presidential candidates who claim he wanted to oust Arab strongmen.

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama tackled a favored GOP criticism about his foreign policy Friday, rejecting Republican presidential candidates' claims that he threatened American security by deliberately promoting regime change in the Middle East.

"We didn't trigger the Arab Spring," Obama said in a press conference, defending his policy in Egypt, Libya and Syria during the regional pro-democracy uprising that began in 2010. 

The president said he felt he had made the right call in Egypt, preventing a massacre by pushing dictator Hosni Mubarak to step down after days of massive protests. In unusually honest language, Obama stood by his decision to prevent Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi from killing thousands of his own people by establishing a no-fly zone, but admitted the U.S. and its partners in Libya should have worked quicker to establish a democratic replacement. And he reiterated his opposition to brutal Syrian president Bashar Assad, whom some -- including a handful of of American observers -- describe as an ally against the extremist Islamic State group despite his de facto support for it.

"I think it is entirely right and proper for the United States of America to speak out on behalf of its values," Obama said, referring to U.S. policy toward Assad. "And when you have an authoritarian leader that is killing hundreds of thousands of his own people, the notion that we would just stand by and say nothing is contrary to who we are, and does not serve our interests," he continued. "At that point, us being in collusion with that kind of governance would make us even more of a target."

As GOP aspirants for Obama's office try to convince voters they would handle the Middle East better than he did, they hope to tap widespread skepticism about U.S. involvement in the region -- a product largely of the self-defeating Republican-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- by suggesting that the current president has been too active there. Top candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have both said they would have preferred to see the U.S. stand behind Mubarak, Qaddafi and Assad

Obama said Friday that those Middle East leaders would have faced popular challenges to their rule and potential collapse no matter what the U.S. did. It was imperative for Washington to decide how to respond to the circumstances in their countries, though it could not control them, he added. 

"We did not depose Hosni Mubarak," the president said. "Millions of Egyptians did because of their dissatisfaction with the corruption and authoritarianism of the regime."

The U.S. had previously cooperated with Mubarak regularly, including under Obama, he added. 

The question of the president's approach to Mubarak, an ostensibly secular leader, has become especially charged because many on the right denounce the result of the transition process Obama supported: the election of the controversial Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's first free elections. (Some who doubt Obama's loyalties even speak of the Egypt policy as a plot to help the Brotherhood.) 

"The notion that somehow the U.S. was in a position to pull the strings on a country that is the largest in the Arab world, I think, is mistaken," Obama said.

"At the point at which the choice was mowing down millions of people or trying to find some transition," he continued, the administration believed "it was more sensible for us to find a peaceful transition to the Egyptian situation." 

Obama still believes that was the correct choice, he said.

The president noted that Libyans faced potential slaughter as well. The United Nations approved action in the country by the U.S. and other nations in March 2011, when Qaddafi appeared ready to commit mass murder in Benghazi, where the rebellion against him began.

"Those who now argue in retrospect we should have left Qaddafi in there seem to forget that he had already lost legitimacy and control of his country and we could have -- instead of what we have in Libya now -- we could have had another Syria in Libya," Obama said.

Libya's current chaos -- it is split between two rival governments, fueled by wealthy rival states in the Arab world, and radical Islamists including the Islamic State group are gaining ground -- is a result of a failure to think about the day after the intervention, the president conceded.

The president conceded that Libya is hardly a model nation today. The country is split between two opposing governments fueled by rival Arab states. Radical Islamists, including the so-called Islamic State, are gaining ground in the country. But Obama held that that state of affairs was not a necessary or inevitable consequence of the intervention. It is to him the result of America and its allies not planning swiftly enough for what would follow Qaddafi's fall.

Throughout his address, Obama presented his response to the Arab Spring as reflecting American values and pragmatism. But while the policy may have been judicious at the time, per the president's reasoning, his remarks largely glossed over the lack of U.S. follow-through after the dictators' fall. And his argument remains far from bulletproof, given that Egypt is once again under repressive rule -- which observers say fosters extremism -- and Libya's chaos increasingly threatens global security. That's one reason critics who say Mubarak and Qaddafi were somehow better than what followed are finding an audience.

The president's response seemed weakest regarding the dictator who is still standing: Assad.

Obama repeated the administration line that Assad's continued rule would prolong Syria's bloody civil war because the majority of Syrians have lost faith in his leadership. He boasted that he had been right to challenge Assad's key backer, Russia, who claimed the tyrant was necessary for stability. But he was unable to say his approach had been more fruitful. That omission is sure to fuel critics who call his Syria policy, of mainly challenging Assad through rhetoric while continuing negotiations, callous and short-sighted. 

Secretary of State John Kerry is leading the negotiations to decide Assad's future. Obama said Friday that he was hopeful that Kerry would be able to convince Russia and Iran, Assad's other chief ally, to transition the dictator out and achieve a ceasefire in Syria that would bring government and non-government forces together against the Islamic State group.

Hours after Obama's address, the United Nations Security Council approved a roadmap to ending the conflict in Syria -- marking the first time the U.S. and Russia both endorsed a path forward but still showing no sign of agreement on Assad.

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