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.
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.