Democracy promotion has been a longstanding goal of US foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere. President George W. Bush championed democracy promotion as a way to counter the ideology and extremism that led to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks against the United States. After Bush’s attempts ended in abject failure, President Barack Obama sought to repair relations with the Muslim world but also withdraw the US footprint in the Middle East. But Obama was forced to take a far more hands-on approach with the outbreak of the 2010-2011 uprisings known as the Arab Spring. President Donald Trump, who has displayed an almost allergic aversion to Obama’s policies, has openly embraced the region’s autocrats with little regard for their abuse of human rights or absence of attention to political or economic freedom. How the United States approaches the region matters – both for aspiring democrats and for those who wish to silence them. Despite the rise of Russia and China, the United States remains the sole superpower, with the loudest voice on the world stage. Thus, the shift from democracy promoter – albeit reluctantly at times – to authoritarian enabler has made the task of democratic political reform far more challenging for people across the Middle East. This discussion will examine the recent democracy promotion efforts of the United States, with a focus on the Obama and Trump years.
Sarah Yerkes is a fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on Tunisia’s political, economic, and security developments as well as state-society relations in the Middle East and North Africa. She has been a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow and has taught in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. Yerkes is a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, where she focused on North Africa. Previously, she was a foreign affairs officer in the State’s Department’s Office of Israel and Palestinian affairs. Yerkes also served as a geopolitical research analyst for the U.S. military’s Joint Staff Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate (J5) at the Pentagon, advising the Joint Staff leadership on foreign policy and national security issues.