Given the lack of political reform in the Arab world during the Obama administration’s first two years in office, Andrew Albertson questions whether rhetoric on human rights and reform shouldn’t be linked to stronger policy consequences moving forward in a post for Carnegie’s Sada on December 8, 2010.

While the last two years have witnessed a few modest advances in political reform in Arab countries—importantly, women appear to be participating politically in larger numbers—the general trend has been authoritarian retrenchment, a continuation of a downward slide that began in 2006. Ultimately domestic actors drive local political dynamics, but the United States contributes significantly to the international environment in which those actors make decisions, including the incentives or disincentives linked to reform or repression. Last week’s brazen rigging of Egyptian parliamentary elections provides an occasion to reexamine the Obama administration’s approach to supporting Arab political reform during its first two years.

President Barack Obama entered office focused on four major goals in the greater Middle East: halting Iran’s nuclear program, gradually withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq, reversing the conflict in Afghanistan, and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Each represented enormous challenges and required close diplomatic coordination with Arab allies, efforts made difficult by the stark unilateralism of President George W. Bush.

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