Trump to Arab Protesters: I Stand With Your Rulers, Not You

As demonstrations erupt from Iraq to Lebanon to Egypt, the United States is sending strong signals that it no longer has any stomach for democracy promotion.

U.S. President Donald Trump greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the West Wing of the White House in Washington on April 3, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the West Wing of the White House in Washington on April 3, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the West Wing of the White House in Washington on April 3, 2017. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

This year, the largest popular protests since the Arab Spring have gripped the Middle East and North Africa, toppling a military dictator and accused war criminals in Sudan, prompting the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and challenging the rule of leaders in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq.

This year, the largest popular protests since the Arab Spring have gripped the Middle East and North Africa, toppling a military dictator and accused war criminals in Sudan, prompting the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and challenging the rule of leaders in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq.

During that time, the Trump administration has responded with a fairly consistent message: America no longer much cares—unless you are protesting against Iran.

While the State Department has offered measured expressions of support for protesters, critics and former U.S. officials say the White House has remained largely indifferent, raising doubts about the administration’s commitment to the demonstrators’ aspirations. For some observers, President Donald Trump’s silence represents a betrayal of America’s traditional role as an inspiration for democracy abroad. But others feel that it would be best for the protesters if the White House stays out of their business—especially since Washington has so egregiously botched democracy promotion in the Arab world before, particularly in Iraq.

“It is better if they don’t say anything,” Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister, told Foreign Policy.

Yet Trump has gone even further in the opposite direction than mere silence, unambiguously siding with the region’s autocratic rulers and leaving lower-level bureaucrats in his administration to deliver mild encouragement to the protesters. Asked this fall to comment on Egypt’s most violent crackdown on protesters since the Arab Spring, Trump offered unconditional support for the country’s leader, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whom he once described as “my favorite dictator.”

“I’m not concerned with it. Egypt has a great leader. He’s highly respected,” Trump said following a meeting with Sisi in September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. “Everybody has demonstrations.”

Trump’s apparent disregard for democratic yearnings in the Middle East may come as no surprise for a president that has questioned the legitimacy of key democratic institutions that have challenged him at home, including the courts, the press, and Congress.

“We have never had a president beaming out to the world a set of anti-democratic instincts and actions that conform so closely with the strongman playbook,” said Thomas Carothers, an expert on international democracy promotion with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Still, his public embrace of autocrats represents a sharp departure from his predecessors, who may have learned to turn up their noses and work with foreign despots but preached the virtues of democratic government in public.

“After [Abraham] Lincoln, this is the first time we’ve had a president who is not just autocratic but has dictatorial tendencies,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, citing Trump’s effort to bend constitutional institutions to his will. “He has more in common with Sisi and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan than any of his predecessors.”

Trump’s views on promoting democracy elsewhere in the world contrast sharply with those of his predecessors, including President Barack Obama.

Well before the Arab Spring, Obama expressed sympathy with the plight of those in the Middle East yearning for political freedom in a region dominated by despots.

In a June 4, 2009, speech in Cairo, Obama appealed directly to Arab leaders to “maintain your power through consent, not coercion.”

But he reacted cautiously to the popular uprising that would later spread through the region a year and a half later, starting in Tunisia. Obama openly backed the protest movement there, where U.S. interests were negligible and where the movement resulted in a swift, bloodless change of government.

Obama compared the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi—who ignited the Arab Spring by setting himself on fire to protest police abuse—to American champions of democracy such as the colonists who dumped hundreds of chests of tea into Boston Harbor to protest an excessive royal tax and Rosa Parks, a civil rights activist who sparked the Montgomery bus boycott by defying a demand to sit in the back of the bus.

But Obama dithered in Egypt, initially holding back support but then turning against then-President Hosni Mubarak as the violence rose and the protesters appeared to gain the upper hand, setting the stage for the election of the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, according to Ibish. “Obama did not reflexively stand with the protesters,” he said.

Still, Obama’s abandonment of a stalwart U.S. ally, along with his efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, was viewed as a betrayal by some regional allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, which began questioning the U.S. commitment to defend its long-standing regional allies.

Obama also drew criticism for remaining largely quiet in the early days of anti-government protests that swept through Iran in 2009, a precarious political moment for the Iranian regime. His Republican political rivals later said his silence validated the regime and contributed to the uprising’s failure.

After his election, Trump moved quickly to restore relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where a military coup against Morsi led to the election of Cairo’s former military and intelligence chief, Sisi. Trump also swept away any pretense that the United States expected friendly autocrats to embrace democracy.

The administration has also put its money where its mouth is. The Trump White House has tried to cut off funding to foreign democracy initiatives and either downgrade or neglect offices that deal with democracy and governance issues worldwide, critics say.

“The White House has taken some concrete moves in the last two and half years that [have] effectively downgraded democracy support,” said Frances Brown, the former director for democracy on the National Security Council (NSC) under both Obama and Trump until she left her post in 2017. “We haven’t seen the White House playing that kind of interagency convening role on many policy processes.”

After Trump came into office, the White House got rid of the NSC’s directorate for democracy, development, and humanitarian assistance, creating a gap in the White House on coordinating democracy promotion across federal agencies. Former officials say this reflects how the administration does not prioritize these issues as past administrations have, but others dismiss that criticism: The NSC still has staff focused on democracy and governance, but the portfolio was simply folded into another directorate as part of the administration’s push to reduce the size of the NSC and streamline it.

In 2017, Trump NSC officials began to develop an interagency strategy on democracy, human rights, and governance. The strategy would have provided direction for federal agencies on how to incorporate promoting democracy into their day-to-day work and signaled to the U.S. public and other countries its priorities related to promoting democracy. But the strategy stalled out and withered on the vine in the spring and summer of 2018, former officials say, amid personnel changes at the top levels of the White House, when Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster resigned as national security advisor and John Bolton replaced him.

One person familiar with the matter pushed back on this characterization, saying the strategy was still read at high levels and though it was never formally released, the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other agencies still rely on the document to guide their work.

At the State Department, one of the top positions that deals with the human rights portfolio, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, sat empty for more than two and a half years. “Clearly it’s a signal they don’t view this as a priority,” Brown said.

Robert Destro, a law professor and human rights attorney, filled the post after being confirmed by the Senate in September.

Then there’s the money side of the issue. For the fiscal year 2018 and 2019 federal budgets, the White House proposed cuts for programs that promote democracy by 40 percent. The efforts were blocked by Congress.

“The U.S. government is still engaged in supporting democracy at the level of policy. That hasn’t changed,” Carothers said. But the effort is being “starved of oxygen from the top.”

“The White House’s approach to democracy promotion in general has been to slash funding for those programs drastically,” said Tim Rieser, a foreign-policy aide to Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, the vice chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

In Egypt, for example, “the only message we have heard from this administration is ‘Sisi is a great leader.’ They haven’t made democracy or human rights a priority, and as far as we know, they haven’t expressed support for the Egyptians protesting for democracy,” Rieser added. There are people at both the State Department and USAID who want to “engage with civil society and promote democracy. But they are constrained by the White House, which has other priorities.”

All of this represents a sea change in U.S. foreign policy in the aftermath of the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the failure of previous democracy movements in the Arab world. After all, the promotion of democracy has been embedded in U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II, when the United States helped foster democratic governments in Germany and Japan.

Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all embraced the goal of promoting democracy abroad, though often with different and contradictory aims—for instance, advancing human rights, combating communism, expanding U.S. influence, or fighting terrorism.

Congress has spent more than $2 billion each year over the past decade to strengthen democratic institutions, including legal and electoral institutions, as well as promote human rights and democratic governance. The State Department, USAID, and government-funded organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy continue to support democracy around the world.

Still, the U.S. record as the world’s beacon of democracy is mixed.

During the Cold War, the United States toppled democratically elected governments in Chile, Guatemala, and Iran. And it has always been willing to hold its tongue in the face of abuses by friendly governments.

The United States has been an especially ambivalent peddler of democracy in the Arab world, gently nudging the region’s leaders toward a more open rule while gaining comfort from the predictability of diplomatic relations with the strategically vital region’s long-standing autocrats and monarchs.

The current wave of protests against Sisi and other regional leaders has been fueled by many of the same issues that fed the Arab Spring—rising living costs, high unemployment, and resentment against entrenched leaders acting corruptly—though each country’s protests are rooted in unique histories and political contexts. In the case of Lebanon, protests were sparked by a proposed tax on calls made using messaging services such as WhatsApp, a vital tool for cheap and secure communications.

A senior U.S. administration official insisted that America “has been consistent in supporting the security, stability, and sovereignty of our partners in the Middle East.”

“We reject violence and support the right of citizens to demonstrate peacefully,” the official added. “We have called on regional leaders both publicly and privately to respond to the needs of their citizens.”

But the White House has largely delegated the U.S. response to the bureaucracy, particularly the State Department. In remarks to the press on Tuesday, David Schenker, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, voiced concerns about human rights in Egypt, saying he has “raised—and will continue to stress at senior levels—the fundamental importance of respect for human rights, universal freedoms, and the need for a robust civil society.”

But Schenker stopped short of criticizing the Egyptian government.

In Iraq, Schenker took issue with the Iraqi government’s crackdown on media covering the protests. “Press freedom is inherent to democratic reform, and we are deeply concerned about the forced closure of media outlets and the pressure to censor reporting about the protests,” he said.

Finally, Schenker urged political leaders in Lebanon, where Prime Minister Hariri announced his resignation following protests of government corruption, to answer the “Lebanese people’s long-standing demands for economic reform and an end to endemic corruption.” Yet the Trump administration is also concerned about the political power of Hezbollah in the wake of Hariri’s departure.

Elsewhere, some Trump administration officials have offered measured support for protests, but that hardly amounts to a consistent policy. In Sudan, where President Omar al-Bashir, a military dictator who once offered a safe haven to al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, was toppled by popular unrest this year, Pompeo and then-National Security Advisor Bolton tweeted words of encouragement to the protesters who brought him down.

“The unprovoked violence of Sudan’s security forces against peaceful demonstrators in Khartoum is abhorrent,” Bolton tweeted in June, about two months after the fall of Bashir. Sudan’s transitional government, he wrote, “must respect the right to peaceful demonstration and speed transition to a civilian-led government, which the Sudanese people have rightfully demanded.”

Beyond that, the White House took a fairly “arm’s-length approach” to the protest movement, according to Cameron Hudson, a former State Department and CIA official who has worked on Sudan policy for decades. The NSC, Hudson added, never even organized a senior principals meeting to determine the course of U.S. policy in response to the crisis in Sudan, leaving it largely to career officials in the State Department.

In response to criticisms of the government’s Sudan policy, the senior U.S. administration official said: “The U.S. government fully supports the civilian-led government of Sudan.”

But the “wait and see” approach contrasts with the Obama administration’s approach to crisis management, which involved taking a “much more active role in trying to shape outcomes,” according to Hudson, who is currently a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

In Sudan’s case, he said, the detached U.S. approach may have been best.

“There are moments when a heavy-handed U.S. involvement can color the protests,” Hudson said. “I think the value of the protest movement in Sudan was it was very homegrown. It did not have any appearance of foreign intervention or manipulation, which enhanced the credibility of the protest movement.”

“You could argue that if the U.S. had been more actively involved in trying to push or shape the outcome, we could have undermined the credibility of the moment,” Hudson added. “I would not credit the Trump administration making that strategic calculation.”

In the Middle East, Iran, not the United States, appears most committed to shaping the outcome of the protest movements. While the protests have largely been triggered by domestic grievances, Iran and its chief regional proxy militia Hezbollah have sought to blame the United States and its Western allies for fomenting the protests, which represent a threat to their own positions in the region.

On Wednesday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, claimed that U.S. and Western intelligence agencies were “making chaos” in Lebanon and Iraq, where protesters have vented their rage on Iranian influence in their country.

The senior U.S. administration official countered that Tehran was partly blame. “Recent protests in the region are a result of lacking economic opportunity and widespread corruption, exacerbated by Iranian-backed terrorist groups in the cases of Iraq and Lebanon,” the official said.

Whether that is true or not, it remains increasingly clear that Iran is playing a role in trying to suppress the protests. According to a report by The Associated Press, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani—the head of Iran’s Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that coordinates operations with Iran’s Shiite proxy militias—is directing Iraq’s crackdown on protesters.


Staff writer Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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