Thursday, August 28, 2014
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Obama of Arabia?

DENVER – Not since 1989 has the world seen such an all-consuming, all-engulfing wildfire of freedom and democracy, whose burning passions are sweeping across a region vast and old and desperately in need of reform. From the Maghreb to the Levant to the Arabian Peninsula, Arab history is on the move. A new generation of leadership seems poised to take over.

Moments like these are especially challenging for foreign policymakers, who must keep one eye on the world as it is and the other on the world as it might be in the future. In trying to do just that, US President Barack Obama has been harangued about the need to “get on the right side of history,” or, to quote Bob Dylan, “to get out of the new [road] if you can’t lend your hand.”

These are, indeed, delicate and changing times for the United States, especially at a time when Americans expect their president to be the “emoter” in chief. How Obama manages calls from both the left and the right for more action could well shape the environment in which the process – owned and managed by Arabs – eventually unfolds.

As it picks its way through crisis after crisis in the Arab world, the Obama administration would do well to follow a few guidelines that do not change with every news cycle.

First, staying on the right side of history is one thing, but suggesting that the US is inspiring, if not directing, the Arab revolts is quite another. Avoiding this perception is sometimes difficult: in much of the region, US media are perceived as an arm of a supposedly omnipotent America. So, when the reporting of US correspondents borders on cheerleading (a relatively common occurrence), the perception that America is masterminding events is given fresh impetus.

It is thus wise for Obama not to be out directing traffic in the crise du jour. There are times when it is best for a US president to lay low, even if it makes him seem absent and disengaged. This is one of those times.

Second, Americans often pride themselves on taking a transactional approach to the world. But what is happening in the Arab world is not a series of transactions; it is a tectonic cultural shift in terms of generational attitudes, gender relations, and urban-rural tensions. Democracy versus dictatorship is, of course, one fault line, but so, too, as we know from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, is the 1,300-year-old Shia-Sunni divide. Policies designed for one fault line are not necessarily appropriate for the latter.

Accurate analysis of what is taking place on the ground is essential, but this can prove difficult in an echo chamber of globalized cultural icons. While many Americans would like to think that the battle lines have been drawn between Tweeters and non-Tweeters, between those on Facebook and those without profiles, it is more likely that some other identities account for what is happening.

Of course, nobody likes to refer to “tribalism” or “clan” conflict, but these elements of identity often play a key role in determining people’s willingness to take to the streets. In fact, the aura of political incorrectness that surrounds such terms reflects the absence of any similar organizing principle in contemporary globalized societies. But that is no reason to rule out such categories of analysis where they do apply.

Third, there is at least one motivation behind the Arab revolts that permeates Western politics as well: the urge to forget the facts, the risks, and the future, and just throw the rascals out. We see this sentiment reflected in the slogan that has become ubiquitous in the region: “The people want to bring down the regime.”

Some of these rascals are indeed, to put it gently, past their shelf life. In some cases, they and their cronies have stolen much of the national wealth. Who is to say that this motivation should be held in any lower regard than that of those manning the ramparts of democracy? There is much to respect in the “throw the rascals out” approach. Unfortunately, it does not always lead to more democracy.

Finally, the Obama administration should bear in mind that in some countries, the old order will be replaced quickly. In time, however, the changes might amount to less than was first hoped, and could actually bring about a situation that arguably is worse than the status quo ante (the French Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Iranian Revolution come to mind). In other countries, of course, the outcome might be much more promising (The American Revolution, Eastern Europe in 1989).

Some historical processes, however quickly launched, will eventually falter. A dictator who has shown no concern for his people might actually prove quite talented at clinging to power. In these circumstances, there will be inevitable calls for the West – namely the US – to overthrow the tyrant militarily.

When such prescriptions present themselves, policymakers should take a deep breath and ask how the tyrant got there in the first place. When US-led forces overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, far too little effort was made to understand how a peasant tyrant like Saddam was able to seize power and hold it for so long. How did he manipulate Sunni-Shia relations, or manage the complexities of Iraq’s tribal system, so well?

Of course, terror was at the root of Saddam’s approach, but so, too, was a grasp of internal political and social processes. The US – now in the ninth year of an engagement that has cost it more than $1 trillion, with thousands of American and Iraqi lives lost –would have done well to understand those processes with equal thoroughness.

Surely, that lesson should be applied as the US responds to the emergence of a new – but not necessarily newly democratic – Arab world.

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