Sana’a, Yemen—On a recent rainy afternoon at the anti-government protest in Yemen’s capital, an old tribesman, dressed in a long white robe belted at the waist with a foot-long dagger, danced hand-to-hand with a young man wearing tight jeans and a khaki jacket, more Williamsburg than Arabian Peninsula. The two men hopped and whirled in tight circles, their shoulders draped in Yemen’s tricolor flag, their bare feet scuffing in unison on the dusty asphalt.
The public uprisings spreading like wildfire from Tunisia to the Persian Gulf have been referred to collectively as the “Arab Spring.” But in fact, as the Obama administration crafts its policy responses, it should strive to avoid this unifying narrative, lest it obscure the unique challenges faced by each country, as well as the distinctive ramifications that each uprising has for U.S. interests.
We have found much to like in President Obama’s actions over the past week. He acted to stop a looming slaughter in Libya—a decision that, based on the number of lives it likely saved, must now be judged a clear success. Moreover, the air campaign against Qaddafi has significantly weakened one of the world’s most brutal dictators, providing momentum and hope to the rebels who are fighting to unseat him. This has not just been a hopeful development for Libya; it is also a hopeful development for the entire Middle East.
When it came to foreign policy and national security, George W. Bush was a "big idea" president. Whether one agreed or disagreed with them, overarching concepts and a defined perspective on history drove his decisions. So far, Barack Obama has not been a big idea president, at least in foreign and national security policy. His instincts have been more those of a lawyer, charting a careful course through specific challenges and gravitating to a middle path which minimized risk.
When the inspiring images of hundreds of thousands of Egyptian men and women demanding their freedom at enormous personal risk first appeared and everybody was talking about whether that revolution would spark similar revolutions in nearby countries, I found myself saying to friends, "What about here? Maybe the example of their courageous actions will shake the American people out of their long apathetic stupor." Inevitably I was met with laughter. Sometimes I felt a friend's laughter was conspiratorial—the exhilaration of imagining together that things could be different from what they are.
I remember sitting by a pool in August 1990 with my friend Fred Siegel discussing George H.W. Bush’s “drawing a line in the sand” after Iraq had invaded Kuwait. “My comrades on the left can’t be against this,” I announced to Fred, but I was dead wrong. Within days, my own publication, In These Times, and others had raised specters of another Vietnam and of U.S. imperialism. I have had a similar experience of shock and awe today as I looked at various blogs and websites that air opinion on the left.
If spring comes, can winter be far behind? We are just concluding one of those rare hours when history could be viewed with something other than contempt. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia introduced a new movement of freedom, and demolished the cultural pessimism that confined such longings to people like us. The revolt in Libya, also animated by a democratic aspiration, exposed not only the depravity of a dictator but also the cravenness with which he was received in the wood-paneled precincts of some of the immensely important people of Washington, New York, and Cambridge.
Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote that all the great events of the past 700 years—from the Crusades and English wars that decimated the nobles, to the discovery of firearms and the art of printing, to the rise of Protestantism and the discovery of America—had the ineluctable effect of advancing the principle of equality. Political scientist Samuel Huntington went further and identified several historical waves of democratization. The First Wave began with our own revolution in 1776, which was quickly followed by the French Revolution.
As the dictators fall, the clichés fall, too. Cairo and Tunis and Tripoli are littered with the shards of platitudes about what is possible and what is impossible in Arab societies, in closed societies. Civilizational analysis lies in ruins. Idealism, always cheaply mocked, turns out to be a powerful form of historical causation, as disruptive of the established order as any economic or technological change, and even more beneficent.