Time for the President to Get Ahead of This Curve

You Can Turn Your Back on a Person, But Don’t You Ever Turn Your Back on Tens of Millions of Politically-Disenfranchised People with a National Identity

The Wall Street Journal has been considerate-enough to provide us with a helpful map and chart siting the recent democracy protest-incidents spreading throughout the Arab world and Iran.  I have ranked 13 Middle Eastern anti-government campaigns below as I understand them by relative intensity:

Government overturned: Tunisia (protests began December 17th, succeeded January 14th), Egypt (protests began January 25th, succeeded February 11th)

Civil War: Libya (protests started Feb. 16th; Benghazi mutiny Feb. 20th)

Large-scale, continuous unrest: Bahrain (protests started Feb. 14th), Yemen (protests started Jan. 22nd, re-started Feb. 11th)

Chronic but subliminal protests: Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Jordan

Government apparently waited-out protests: Morocco

Protests repressed or discouraged (for now): Sudan, Djibouti

“No-shows”: Syria

Incidentally, the Journal map and chart currently overlooks Syria (where protests were planned, but in a country cowed by past violence almost no one turned out), Sudan (where the first day of demonstrations met with brute-force repression and Omar Hassan al-Bashir claimed he would step down at the end of his term), Djibouti (a small Somali state where unrest resulted in repression last Friday), Kuwait (where descendants of the country’s nomadic peoples demand citizenship), Iraq (where the Kurdish city of Suleimaniya and the mostly-Shi’a Arab city of Basra have seen anti-corruption protests) and Morocco (where a recent Post article on Libya acknowledges that the first protests throughout the country only number in the thousands and where the basis of popular grievance so far is less-obvious).  Each of the countries the Journal has left off its map, however, have been much quieter than the ones on the map (and in the news).

Besides Tunisia and Egypt, there are 3 countries where the protesters seem to be winning (at present).  King Hamad of Bahrain may be compelled to grant protesters (largely Shi’a in this majority-Shi’a country with a Sunni monarchy) the parliamentary monarchy they have called for.  (King Hamad might find this an agreeable outcome compared to the sudden and total deposition of Ben Ali from Tunisia or Mubarak from Egypt.)  In Yemen, president-for-life Ali Abdullah Saleh has gradually expanded his talk of concessions and seems to have a genuinely-ambivalent attitude about the protesters, though some have already been killed in clashes with police.  In violence-wracked Libya, Colonel Gaddafi may not survive the weekend if he doesn’t flee.

Again, Prudence Becomes Imprudent as Circumstances Change

These remarkable developments seem to beg a question: Where is President Obama?  It might seem that the President should tread softly, but this argument is slowly losing plausibility.  The Liberal Ironist first thought the President should have spoken more-loudly because the demonstrations gathered so much strength so quickly.  It may be that the President’s tack during the Egyptian protests (essentially calling for non-violence and expressing sympathy for all peoples’ desire for self-determination) was strategically smart because of the large investment and ensuing foreign policy and national security benefits of that relationship–though in the past this had involved our government in charges of visible hypocrisy and abettance of Mubarak’s human rights abuses.  Far from being weak or clueless President Obama’s equable stance, while not politically-compromising for the United States, indicated to the Mubarak regime, the protesters and the decisive Egyptian Supreme Armed Forces Council that Mubarak had sacrificed his credibility when he started organizing teams of thugs to beat and massacre protesters.  Maybe this indirect, principles-focused approach was the wisest.  While it was passively-moralistic, it was also coherent and not fraught with political risk.  It slowly removed the maneuvering room for Mubarak while not constituting a betrayal of a US ally.  It also meant the pro-democracy protesters in Egypt did all the work themselves, meaningfully transforming Arab publics’ self-perception and (though perhaps not quickly-enough) their governments’ perceptions of them.

But the fall of the Mubarak regime on February 11th opened an opportunity for President Obama to take a stand on these protests in 2 ways.  1st, the much-hyped concern for a democratic Egyptian government that would renounce its landmark peace treaty with Israel, break off cooperation with the United States in counter-terrorist operations, and end its policing of its border with the Hamas-occupied Gaza Strip.  (In the light of the expressions of sympathy for blockaded Gaza by the democratically-elected moderate-Islamist government of Turkey, this last concern is the most-plausible.)  2nd, Egypt, with a population of about 80 million, is by far the most-populous Arab country, and has the greatest capacity to set an exemplary trend for other democracy movements.  Of course, protests had started in several countries before the January 25th anti-police demonstrations began in Egypt, but Egypt has traditionally been the cultural and commercial hub of the Arab world (though this role has long been diminished by Persian Gulf oil money and Hosni Mubarak’s fossilization of Egyptian politics).  Preceding imitators aside, I think the Egyptian revolution that made regime change from below the central topic of debate and an exemplary cause for the countries of the region.  This also likely means that some of the biggest potential pratfalls from the spreading Middle Eastern revolutions have passed: Witness the instant dismissal of the Gaddafi regime’s claims–which reached the point of absurdity twice this week–that foreigners were behind the uprising in Libya.

…But Don’t Speak Too Loudly

I’m not saying President Obama should engage in his predecessor’s broad-brush good-vs.-evil talk, which can alienate non-democratic allies without securing democratic revolutions in the long run.  The fall 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the fall 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine–cheered on by President George W. Bush–and spring 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan–facilitated in part by State Department grants to promote independent newspapers–resulted in a revisionist foreign policy by Russian President Vladimir Putin which continued for the rest of the Bush presidency.  The revisionism resulted in non-democratic retrenchment in Kyrgyzstan and even Ukraine, and catalyzed Russia’s victorious war against Georgia in August 2008.  But President Obama has already achieved a “reset” in relations with Russia, and what we are seeing in the Middle East is a series of protests by example and affinity.

The President can credibly argue that the only way out for the Middle East’s surviving autocracies is through–that in order to survive at all, these governments should democratize.  Certainly there would be an element of mythology to taking such an aggregate and deterministic approach to the dozen Middle Eastern countries that have seen these bare-dawn revolutions; some will not succeed, and some collapsing autocracies may yet leave in their wake (though I hate resort to historical analogy) another Jacobin Terror or another Somalia.  But many Arab states today enjoy a high-enough standard of living for people to notice corruption and to object to it, many currently face economic reversal which has angered a politically-voiceless middle class and its many children, and yes, not just Facebook and Twitter but al-Jazeera TV news have produced new tactical tools available to sometimes-atomized but ever-stalwart dissidents.  Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for 23 years, Mubarak ruled Egypt for about 30 years, and Gaddafi will have ruled Libya for almost 42 years by the likely-immanent violent end of his tyranny.  None of these governments appeared vulnerable last Christmas; now they look like they are a part of a regional process–but one where, as Mark Zuckerberg says about Facebook in The Social Network, “We don’t even know what it is yet!”

Even if in hindsight he gets some important details about this moment of revolutionary freedom wrong, the Liberal Ironist thinks President Obama should say something about what “all this” is.  He should do this to offer encouragement and appreciation to Arab dissidents taking great risks to make a government for themselves, to put the rest of the Arab autocrats on notice the only way an ally can, and to dispel the bad information, often-bigoted fears, and general lack of perspective we may have at home about the suddenness and scope of this movement of the long-voiceless.

He could also use this speech as occasion to explain why the United States is intervening in Libya to end Gaddafi’s bloodshed, but now I guess I’m asking for too much tough talk.

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