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APG5668 – Short Essay

Word limit: 2,000
Weight: 20%
Due: Monday 13th April
Were the United States' responses to the Arab Spring uprisings a result of realist foreign policy or was
there an underlying tension between realism and idealism?
American foreign policy has always been imbued with a tension between its national interest and
idealistic national values. This tension, in a sense, can be seen as a conflict between 'foreign policy
realism' and 'foreign policy idealism.'1 Realism, of course, being the articulation and aspiration for
national interests whilst idealism (or liberalism) being the articulation and spread of values or ideals.
When it comes to America's foreign policy approach towards the Arab Spring uprisings that began in
late 2010, it appears to be mixed. Some would argue that the Obama administration's rhetoric directed
towards the tentative states was very much idealistic, while others would point to the intervention in
Libya as being within the national interest and thus, realist. The approach towards Bahrain, too, was
realist in nature, erring on the side of national interest and strategic importance. Realism has long been
the tool of choice for the United States when it relates to the Middle East, with ensuring Israel's
security and the flow of Gulf oil to the global economy being the main priorities.2 However, when
looking at the Arab Spring, an attempt to find a balance between foreign policy realism and idealism is
apparent. Given that the United States holds itself as a beacon for democratic values and human rights,
it should attempt to embrace the people's calls for democracy – for not doing so would be contradictory
to their own basic tenets as a nation. This discussion will explore some of America's foreign policy
responses to some of the Arab Spring uprisings and whether or not these responses fit a realist or
idealist approach.
The Arab Spring is used to describe a series of uprisings that occurred in the Middle East and North
Africa, beginning in Tunisia in 2010. The Obama administration's responses were, to begin with, were
ambivalent and indecisive.3 This can almost certainly be explained by America's strategic interests in
1 Pierre M. Atlas, “U.S. Foreign Policy and the Arab Spring: Balancing Values and Interests,” Digest of Middle East
Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2, 2012, p.353.
2 Ibid, p.355.
3 Maria Do Ceu De Pinho Ferreira Pinto, “Mapping the Obama administration's response to the Arab Spring,” Revista
Brasileira De Politica Internacional, Vol. 55, No. 2, 2012, p.109.

KIERSTEN DAVIS

23387092

kedav6@student.monash.edu

“U. so long as stability was maintained in the region. “U. 2. it was considered as an opportunity for democracy to prosper in Libya. Atlas.S. 21. however.N had voted collectively to institute a 'no fly zone' over Libya. Vol. Israel's security and other macrolevel issues. I am convinced that a failure to act in Libya would have carried a far greater price for America. America had been content to work with authoritarian regimes. Democracy and Security: Domestic and International Ramifications. oil security.110.9 The bringing down of Gaddafi's regime was considered a total victory for the US and the EU. 7 Pierre M. p. Foreign Policy and the Arab Spring: Balancing Values and Interests. p. further.monash. as the political upheaval unfolded it became clear that the United States would be shaping its responses on a country by country basis.263.6 This does not preclude the analysis of American responses to the Arab Spring and its consistency in each case. The Arab Spring.S interests in the region and emphasized realist themes when justifying military involvement. 2. Democracy and Security: Domestic and International Ramifications. By March 17.34.” Operation 'Odyssey Dawn' was considered to be within the national interest and also conforming to American values.66. 5 Maria Do Ceu De Pinho Ferreira Pinto. In Libya.371. Atlas. fighting terrorism.60.S. p. Obama stated that: “While I will never minimize the costs involved in military action. 2013.5 Indeed. 21. weighing up national interests with idealistic visions for the region. 36. anti-government protests began in mid-February 2011. after military endeavours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Mapping the Obama administration's response to the Arab Spring. intervention in the Middle East yet again was not looked upon fondly or seen as a popular policy position.” The Economist.S. New York. Foreign Policy and the Arab Spring: Balancing Values and Interests. we can see tensions between realism and idealism emerge in America's policy approaches. Two days later. Vol.” American Foreign Policy Interests: The Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. what occurred in 4 No author. 9 Pierre M. 10 Efrain Inbar. p. “Barack Obama's Iraq Syndrome.edu . a NATO-led coalition began a military intervention in Libya to prevent full scale civil war and mass atrocities. 2013. No. Taylor and Francis. 2012. the containment of Iran. 6 Efrain Inbar. New York. the U. 4. No. 2013.7 When looking at the Arab Spring. 55. It can also be explained by an “Iraq syndrome.8 Obama made it extremely clear to the public and the press that the crisis in Libya would impact U. 2014.10 The current situation in Libya aside. p. Realism had long been the policy of choice in relation to the Middle East.4 Eventually.” in that. Prior to the Arab Spring. Taylor and Francis.the region. “U. Lexington.355. 24th August. 8 Marianna Charountaki. Vol. Hillary Clinton herself argued that it would be absurd “to take a one-size-fits-all approach” to the uprisings.” Digest of Middle East Studies. 2012. 2012. Foreign Policy in Theory and Practice: From Soviet-Era Containment to the Era of the Arab Uprising(s). Vol. The Arab Spring. 2. KIERSTEN DAVIS 23387092 kedav6@student.” Digest of Middle East Studies. p. p. No.” Revista Brasileira De Politica Internacional. No.

” Mediterranean Quarterly. consistently supporting authoritarian regimes in the region for the sake of stability and the national interest. the relationship with Mubarak's regime had become untenable.monash. p. the Obama administration began calling for his resignation and started linking US aid with the demands of pro-democracy demonstrators being met. a “pillar of American foreign policy in a volatile region” for over 30 years. that due to the millions of people protesting on the streets of Cairo. No. p. Vol. 14 Efrain Inbar. p. It became clear very quickly however.2011 highlights a case in which realism and idealism balanced well in America's foreign policy approach. 2011. 2012. Taylor and Francis. “U. 19. Vol. Foreign Policy in Theory and Practice: From Soviet-Era Containment to the Era of the Arab Uprising(s). KIERSTEN DAVIS 23387092 kedav6@student.” Middle East Policy. 13 F. 4. No.26. Pranger. although. Uprisings in Egypt posed a more serious dilemma to the United States. Vol. This case highlights a great balance between national interest and values.11 and containing American casualties or eliminating them altogether. Democracy and Security: Domestic and International Ramifications. “The Arab Spring. p. The Arab Spring. p.edu . New York.53. 22. Libya proved to be a case in which the United States could intervene.12 The US had turned a blind eye to the regime's repressive nature for a long time. 2013.262. America's Search for Relevancy. Obama also declared that a policy serving both “idealism through the pursuit of democratic change and realism would win popular support in a country of strategic importance. Gregory Clause III and Ian S.”15 Here again we see the United States attempting to balance realism and idealism within their foreign policy.13 This reaction was not nearly as swift as the condemnation the US had put on the Libyan government. both UN permanent security council members. The Mubarak regime had been an ally for a long time. The US had held this foreign policy position for an extensive period. Taylor and Francis. Finally. 4.14 With the calls for his resignation.4-5. 2013. it should be noted that the US would likely not have intervened in this way without the co-operation of the British and the French. 12 Efrain Inbar. due to its emerging interest in protecting people from the potential of mass atrocity.S. the idea of preserving Mubarak's regime was considered at first. 36. with the beginning of a transition to democracy. “America and the Regional Powers in a Transforming Middle East. No. because it maintained stability. The Arab Spring. Lustick. a change from the realism-dominated foreign policy approach towards the Middle East that they had otherwise held true to. 11 Robert J. Democracy and Security: Domestic and International Ramifications.” American Foreign Policy Interests: The Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. doing so before that can actually occur. 2014. It was time for the US to disengage from the now counterproductive relationship with Mubarak.54. 2. New York. 15 Marianna Charountaki.

” Washington Monthly. more unpredictable government. 17 Ibid.edu . Middle East historian Toby Jones said that: “If there is a place globally where there is not just distance but a huge gap between American interests and American values. The Arab Spring. however. 18 Pierre M. Realists would not it see it this way. but the Assad regime was still not deterred from cracking down on its citizens harshly. Atlas. Taylor and Francis. p. 2012.” Digest of Middle East Studies. with little regard for American values or idealism. but did not implement the same complex foreign policy mechanisms that were employed when dealing with the Egyptians or Libyans. “The Crackdown.”16 Bahrain is very heavily tied to America's strategic interests in the region. in contrast to other countries. continually maintained it would not intervene. March/April.61. that it would only apply economic and political pressure on Assad.17 The US remained largely silent on the issues surrounding the repressed Shiite majority in Bahrain. is hypocritical on the part of the United States. which patrols some of the world's busiest oil-shipping lanes.32. The US response to the brutal crackdown of Assad's regime was rather slow and hesitant.39. New York. its in the Persian Gulf. the brutal Assad looked better than an alternative. In contrast to Libya. p.monash. the US took a far more realistic approach to the tiny kingdom of Bahrain when protests began erupting there. Vol. 2011.365. 2. America has foregone democratic reforms in favor of maintaining stability and its own strategic interests. being the home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. KIERSTEN DAVIS 23387092 kedav6@student.20 Sanctions followed this.62-63. No. The US did call for some reform.21 Further. “U. p. The strategic interest in the naval base means that the United States does need to maintain good relations with the Bahrain regime. which may explain why there was a lack of political will to intervene militarily.19 What is clear is that realist foreign policy dominated the United States' approach to Bahrain. Bahrain is considered the Middle East “exception. And its epicenter is in Bahrain.18 Some have argued that the approach to Bahrain. The US. 20 Efrain Inbar. 2013. Syrian protests began on the 26th of January. Whom could replace the Assad regime in power remained unclear and in some sense. p. It took several months of brutal repression for Obama to finally begin calling for Assad to step down. The Bahraini leadership are also intimately tied to that of Saudi Arabia.In contrast to the two above countries. Foreign Policy and the Arab Spring: Balancing Values and Interests. there was a lack of international support for military intervention in Syria and 16 Kelly McEvers. waters which also border Iran. 21.” in that. 19 Ibid. p.S. who began protesting and calling for improved political and economic rights. 21 Ibid. p.376. Democracy and Security: Domestic and International Ramifications. 2012. the US did not see a viable (and friendly) opposition in Syria. long a traditional ally of the United States.

Foreign Policy in Theory and Practice: From Soviet-Era Containment to the Era of the Arab Uprising(s). In the case of Libya. Foreign Policy in Theory and Practice: From Soviet-Era Containment to the Era of the Arab Uprising(s). p.S. “U.” American Foreign Policy Interests: The Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. Some do definitely accuse the United States of having double standards when it comes to this. KIERSTEN DAVIS 23387092 kedav6@student. Realism pervades United States foreign policy in the Middle East because of the important interests in the region.the problem of Russia's close ties and large amounts of aid given to the Assad regime. What we can see from the Libya case. tensions can be seen between American national interest and values. 2014. No.edu . including containing Iran and the security of Israel.monash. he had been a long enemy. Even when our interests and ideals come into tension in the short run. 22 Marianna Charountaki. is that realist notions of national interest can be balanced alongside values and idealism. Condoleezza Rice said that when it came to the United States: “The old dichotomy between realism and idealism has never really applied to the United States. For our nation. America's approach to Bahrain was to largely ignore the protests and calls for less oppression. being a country whom prides itself on being a beacon of and for democracy. In contrast.264. “U. 2014. we believe that in the long run they are indivisable. 36. No. because we do not really accept that our national interest and our universal ideals are at odds. Getting rid of Gaddafi was positive for the United States. Vol. it has always been a matter of perspective. Although Obama paid lip service to the humanitarian crisis that was occurring. p.S. 23 Marianna Charountaki. America saw an opportunity to intervene and saw that intervention served their national interests best. 4. 36. 4. Vol. and therefore the political will to intervene is lacking and is perceived to not be in the national interest.” American Foreign Policy Interests: The Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.22 The foreign policy approach to Syria by the United States is far more realist than idealistic. and the way in which the United States may percieve itself. for example. there are some clear tensions between national interest and American values in the Middle East that have been reflected in their foreign policy approaches towards the above countries and their uprisings.”23 Despite this.263. in favour of keeping an ally on side and holding onto their strategic interests in the region.

32-39. 2013. pp. “Mapping the Obama administration's response to the Arab Spring.” Mediterranean Quarterly. 2011. “Barack Obama's Iraq Syndrome. New York.” American Foreign Policy Interests: The Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. Lexington. Atlas. 2. pp. Pranger. Foreign Policy in Theory and Practice: From Soviet-Era Containment to the Era of the Arab Uprising(s). Vol. Taylor and Francis. 2. No.monash. 2012. Vol.S.” Revista Brasileira De Politica Internacional. Vol. pp.” Washington Monthly. Vol. 2012.S.1-9. pp. “U. Democracy and Security: Domestic and International Ramifications.edu . Efrain Inbar.Bibliography: Pierre M. 36. Marianna Charountaki. 2. America's Search for Relevancy. 2012.” Digest of Middle East Studies. 2013. 55. No. Maria Do Ceu De Pinho Ferreira Pinto. No. The Arab Spring. 2014. Robert J. No. “America and the Regional Powers in a Transforming Middle East. No author. p.20-35. March/April. KIERSTEN DAVIS 23387092 kedav6@student. “The Arab Spring. pp. 24th August. Gregory Clause III and Ian S. 22. “U.353-385. Foreign Policy and the Arab Spring: Balancing Values and Interests.255-267. Vol. No. 21. 19. 2012. Lustick. 4. pp.109-130. Kelly McEvers.” The Economist. 4.34.” Middle East Policy. “The Crackdown. F.