The State of the Union: A Shortsighted Transitional Policy

02/15/2013 01:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 17, 2013

In the State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama presented an outline of his administration's priorities for the next four years. The address makes for some essential reading for emerging leaders in the Arab region, who had taken office on promises of change towards fulfilling the people's right to democracy. However, many of these leaders soon reneged on their pledges, riding on the coattails of election results to monopolize power and appropriate constitutions instead. On Monday, February 11, a day before the State of the Union address, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke on the "state of the nations," and reduced all urgent challenges to two crucial issues, namely Syria and climate change. In truth, this is evidence of the centrality of the Syrian crisis in international relations, as well as the fate of the UN's reputation. In the meantime, it seems that "the state of the Arab region" is one speech that no one dares yet to give. The Arab region is undergoing a complex transitional phase rife with challenges that range anywhere from denial of the new facts and their implications, to the need to develop new ideas that place people's concerns and their right to a decent life above all else. In the address he delivered to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, President Obama put emphasis on the state of the U.S. economy, and the need to create jobs, the need for further professional training and respect for talent and hard, diligent work. Obama said, "The Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress." He spoke about the "bargain" between major corporations and the rights of the middle class. The U.S. president also tackled core issues in the life of the average American, such as healthcare and pension. He talked about education from kindergarten to university, and called on Congress to vote for bills that attacked problems that are at the heart of the needs and demands of the U.S. citizenry. Obama addressed the rights of "citizens" as a term that describes the nature of people in terms of what they believe in, and also their obligations towards each other.

Such a speech with a social platform is almost absent from the prevalent discourse of most Arab leaders. Unfortunately, it seems that the political players are above such "platitudes" in many Arab countries. For instance, Lebanon has become an open arena for various actors with little regard for its sovereignty, and its capital, Beirut, has become a forbidding place for visitors. The city, which was - and still at heart is - a beacon of personal freedoms and leisure, has been disfigured by politicians, who transformed it from a favored destination for many Gulf Arabs, Europeans and Americans, into the capital of fear, for instance from assassinations and kidnappings. Nowadays, the people of Beirut are hostage to instability, fear and unrest, while poverty, despair and frustration spread, instead of their city becoming a capital for prosperity, joy and hope. Tunis fears that it could turn into another Beirut, having now experienced political assassination. Its economy is threatened because, like Beirut, it is a capital for openness, tourism, multiculturalism and contact with other civilizations. Change came there in protest against the lack of justice. But it was soon stormed by those who hijacked the promise for change and eliminated the voices that objected to the monopoly of power and the constitution.

In Tunisia, women enjoyed the most rights among their peers in the Arab world, thanks to the laws introduced by late President Habib Bourguiba. Today, women there are struggling against those who want them to become "subservient" to men, and enshrine this in the constitution and personal status laws. Women are faring even worse in Egypt. There, in the largest, most populous and most politically and historically important Arab country, women have become easy prey for rape. Some clerics there have even ruled this to be acceptable, if not encouraged, as a punishment for those women who dared to go to Tahrir Square demanding their civil rights, or to participate in shaping the country's future and reject a constitution that sidelines them. But in Egypt too, Islamists have come out in counter-demonstrations as if to tell liberals, modernists and secularists, "Shut up, we won the elections." This is how they are thinking now, and this is how they were thinking when the West rushed to embrace and bless their haste to hold elections that the country was not ready for, or indeed for the exercise of true democracy. To be sure, it was obvious that the Islamists would win the elections before the liberals were ready for them, since their popular extensions were many decades older. Yet, it wasn't them who had launched the revolutions, and they had only gotten on their bandwagon to hijack them.

During an open session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the prime ministers of Egypt and Morocco became furious when they were asked about the conditions of women after the revolution and the change that engendered the Islamist rise to power in the Arab region. The two Arab leaders countered that this was a Western premise that they rejected, and that they and their constituencies, as Islamists, have their own vision on such issues. But those leaders did not bother answering the question, or to take into account what Arab women say or want. What's more, the Egyptian prime minister mentioned in his reply that he was married and had five daughters. Very well, but this is not a convincing answer about what is happening to women in Egypt. Meanwhile, the Moroccan prime minister, always ready to make jokes, said something to the effect of: Do not expect from us a Swiss-style democracy. Pardon, Mr. Benkirane, but you're wrong. What was sought by the movements for change in the Arab region was not a truncated democracy, an Islamist democracy or a democracy tailored to men's dictates in power or the clerics' incomplete and dishonest interpretation of Islamic law. Yes, what the youths of the Arab uprisings - both men and women - wanted was democracy that is no less developed than Swiss or Jeffersonian democracy.

Ban Ki-moon fell into this same pitfall during his speech on the state of the world, which he gave at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He said that people in the Arab region want "real change," but that this would not bring about "Jeffersonian" or "Swiss-style" democracy. Pardon again, Mr. Secretary-General, but tell the advisor or senior staff member who recommended that you use this phrase that it is insulting. For one thing, the promise of change is the promise of democracy, without the latter being refashioned to fit the needs of the Islamists in power. If someone told you that this is a gradual process, then you ought to respond that as Secretary-General, you are not interested in gradualism and tailoring democracy to suit those in power today. You are interested in democracy as a principle, rather than a cloak, and must not adopt a position against the liberals and modernists who want clear and honest democracy enshrined in constitutions.

At the start of the Arab Spring wave of uprisings, which is now entering its third year, Ban Ki-moon was very enthusiastic for change, to which he assigned a moral purpose and insisted on its validity, in the sense of putting an end to the situation that stood before, and then reap the rewards. He wagered on what he considered the people's desire for change, and refused to listen to those who warned him against hastiness and Western espousal of Islamist factions that have sought after power for decades. Ban Ki-moon played an important role in enabling the Islamists, with little accountability, scrutiny, and insistence on transparency. He did not prepare for what the Islamists' agenda may be in power or for the Russian response to the warm Western reception of the Islamists. Thus, Syria paid the price. There, the international actors are backpedaling away from the extreme enthusiasm that accompanied change in Libya. Naturally, the split at the UN Security Council and the insistence of Russia and China on wielding the veto three times so far have had their toll on the UN Secretary-General. Furthermore, reduced U.S. interest in, and clarity on the Syrian and Iranian issues have put restrictions on what Ban Ki-moon can ultimately do. But this does not invalidate, in the end, two basic realities, or two important questions: First, has the outcome of the Arab Spring led Ban Ki-moon to conduct a reassessment, and has he concluded that the current situation requires him to support liberals and modernists with the same boldness and momentum as they seek to rectify the abuses of the Islamists in power? Second, with international efforts, led by his capable representative Lakhdar Brahimi, having been able to leap over the "Assad obstacle" with many international, regional and local players; and with the number of the dead reaching nearly 70,000; will the Secretary-General insist on a threshold of casualties, for instance 100,000, beyond which negotiations would be initiated in earnest?

The UN Secretary General boasts accomplishing two things with regard to the Syrian crisis: First, removing the "Assad obstacle" from the negotiations, that is to say, guarantee lifting the condition of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stepping down as a prelude to negotiations. This U-turn/achievement is local, regional and international at once, as the opposition, the Western powers and regional states all no longer insist on this condition. Instead, the equation is now based on negotiations between the regime and the opposition that bypass the so-called "Assad obstacle." Second, the UN, both at the level of the Secretary-General and the Security Council's major members, is officially and decisively promoting a political solution, rather than a military solution, meaning that what has been "achieved" is slowing down military aid to the Syrian opposition. French Ambassador to the United Nations, Gérard Araud, surmised that this assumption is wrong at its core, because it will be the battlefield that will determine the fate of Syria. Araud also reckoned that Lakhdar Brahimi's wager on American-Russian accord is misguided. The French diplomat is not alone in this view. Signs coming from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council suggest that they are disconcerted by the fact that they have been reduced to mere adjuncts of American-Russian agreement. There have been reports that the U.S. is attempting to rectify the situation to contain this malaise.

In any case, Russian diplomacy wishing to restore the equation of the two main poles, as in the Cold War era, is not satisfied with what it sees as the Special Envoy "overstepping" his powers by proclaiming that the Syrian president is not a party in the political transition. The bottom line here is that the biggest challenge right now lies in the race between the piling Syrian bodies and the international positions that vacillate between "veto" and "negotiations." The UN Secretary-General is not alone responsible for international positions, and he has tried to operate to the extent possible within the margin allowed by the Security Council. Of course, he could exercise certain powers granted to him by the UN Charter, for example by convening and addressing the Security Council, and presenting his recommendations and arguments. Furthermore, the UN General Assembly can also put forward a time table and stop hiding in the shadow of the Security Council. The Assembly too has powers under the Charter that enable it to convene and make binding decisions under the headline of "unity for peace." There is therefore no truth to the claim that there is no choice and no option but to surrender to the will of the Security Council.

Here, returning to the U.S. president's State of the Union address, what he mentioned about U.S. withdrawal and disengagement from the wars of others is not necessarily farsighted, and may well represent a frightening retreat that will be costly for Americans, and not just for others. The U.S. president purported that withdrawing 34,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan is an achievement, but he did not tell the American people what he intends to do when the contagion of the Taliban and Islamic extremism spreads to Pakistan. He said, "We don't need to occupy other nations," in reference to North Africa and the war on al-Qaeda. Yet he did not elaborate on how his war on terror will differ from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. He spoke about allies waging war on behalf of the U.S., like France is doing in Mali, but he did not explain what he would do if France asked him to join the fight. Obama said that he backed the Syrian opposition but did not say how, after he stopped calling for the regime to step down. Finally, he pledged to "do what is necessary to prevent them [Iran] from getting a nuclear weapon," but left the details a complete mystery.

This is then the time to hide behind others, and behind unconstructive ambiguity. This is the worst kind of investment in the international, American and Arab arenas equally, at the level of long-term strategies as well as basic human rights stemming from the right to a normal life - and the right to question the worth of shortsighted transitional policies that have dire consequences for everyone, everywhere.