Unrest in the Arab World Will the United States be on the right side of history? The Right Side of History? The wave of demonstrations, uprisings and revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East has presented the United States with a complex set of diplomatic problems. While a key component of U. S. foreign policy is promoting and supporting democracy, it is vital to U. S. interests that the Middle East remains relatively stable. A truly democratic Arab world is a new concept, and is one that has yet to show its true colors.
If the result of the Palestinian Authority legislative elections held in January of 2006 is any indication of what may evolve in the region, the U. S. has plenty of cause for concern. The elections, championed by U. S. President George W. Bush, resulted in an overwhelming victory by Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the United States. The United States is in an awkward position, needing to appear to the world as a supporter of democracy. Yet the U. S. government has backed oppressive rulers in the region for many years. The reasons the U. S. supported Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak are quite clear.
A stable, albeit oppressive, regime in Egypt meant more stability for the region. With Mubarak gone, the future of the Middle East remains unclear. Increased instability in the region will cause oil prices to rise further (gasoline prices in the U. S. have shot up 16% in the last 8 weeks), possibly putting the U. S. in another recession. Unstable states would provide a refuge for Islamic terrorists, such as al Qaeda. In a worst-case scenario, anti-Israeli, radical Islamic governments in the region could result in war, conflict that would likely, or perhaps inevitably, involve the United States.
President Barack Obama has said on many occasions said that he wants the United States to be on “the right side of history. ” Considering the number of ill-fated foreign policy decisions made in recent history (i. e. the escalation of the Vietnam War, supporting Chilean dictator Pinochet, the backing of Afghan rebels – now the Taliban, during the Soviet invasion, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq), will decisions made today regarding the Arab world put the U. S. on the right or wrong side of history? An Unlikely, Unexpected and Unusual Chain of Events
The series of revolutions that has swept over North Africa and looms over most of the Middle East was unexpected by the Arab world and the West alike, and it started in a most unusual way. In December of 2010, a young, un-licensed produce vendor in a small Tunisian town of was slapped by a policewoman and had his cart confiscated. The incident was hardly extraordinary, yet the chain of events that followed has changed the Arab world forever. Mohammed Bouazizi had graduated with a degree in computer science, but typical of many young Arabs, even those with an education, he could not find work.
So he sold vegetables to help support his seven siblings. The slap in the face was literally one too many, and the young man snapped. He went to the governor’s office and insisted on an appointment. When he was turned away, he threatened to light himself on fire in protest. A short while later, he did. The incident went viral, and with his death less than three weeks later, millions of discontented young Tunisians had a martyr. Like its Arab neighbors, Tunisia has a high percentage of youth population (in Tunisia, 55% of the population is under 25, amongst the highest levels in the region). 2] High food prices have become an increasing problem worldwide, and the Arab world has been hard hit. Tunisians spend approximately 36% of household income on food, in line with Libya, but less than Egypt (48%) and Algeria (53%).  Food inflation and high unemployment, combined with a corrupt and gluttonous regime, lead to an increasing level of frustration. The anger, sparked by the Bouazizi incident, erupted into a four-week popular uprising that spread from town to town, finally engulfing Tunis.
The Tunisian Revolution, named the Jasmine Revolution after the national flower, brought down President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country since 1987. Shortly after the protests began in Tunisia, a wave of protests and demonstrations swept over the Arab world, from Algeria to Yemen, with few countries being exempt from the movement. Leaders of wealthier countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain, offered economic concessions to stave off unrest. Other leaders offered minor political concessions. Yet the protests continue. The Egyptian Revolution, which began with protests on January 5, 2011 and lasted for 18 days, became a media sensation watched worldwide. Not only conventional media, but social media as well. Social media played an unprecedented and important role in Egypt, changing the face of revolutions forever. Unlike Tunisia, a marginal actor in the region, Egypt is the most populous, and one could argue, the most important country in the Middle East, at least in terms of maintaining stability. The U. S. , which had backed the Egyptian government militarily since 1979 and had friendly relations with Mubarak, was faced with tough diplomatic decisions.
Many foreign relations experts agree that the Obama Administration did a reasonable job handling the tricky situation. Once Mubarak stepped down, without the major bloodshed that would have occurred if the military had attack its own people, the U. S. appeared to have been on “the right side of history. ” Yet this remains to be seen. If elections, slated as early as June 2011 for the legislature, August for the President, result in an Islamic Republic that is unfriendly to the U. S. and Israel, the Obama Administration will perhaps find itself on the wrong side of history. The possibility of this outcome is real.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party (which dominated Egyptian politics for decades) pushed for an early timetable, and Egyptian voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum on constitutional changes that will usher in rapid elections. The early elections greatly benefit the established and well organized Muslim Brotherhood and NDP, while placing new liberal parties at a disadvantage. While the Muslim Brotherhood is not a terrorist organization, its foremost principle is “The introduction of the Islamic Shari`ah as the basis controlling the affairs of state and society.  If there were a concise definition of an Islamic Republic (both Iran and Pakistan are Islamic Republics, yet their governments differ greatly), that would be it. Major unrest in Libya came next, with what many thought would be a revolution but quickly turned into a civil war. The U. S. acted cautiously at first, condemning the violence but not calling for Gaddafi to step down. President Obama was criticized by the press by not taking a firmer stance. The Administration quickly changed its tone, with Obama stating on March 3, 2011, “Muammar Gaddafi has lost legitimacy to lead, and he must leave”. 5] In short time, the U. S. joined France and Britain in military action, establishing a U. N. sanctioned “no-fly zone. ” Put simply, the U. S. is now at war with Libya, involved in a civil war with a sovereign state, and supporting rebels whom it knows little about. A recent Gallup Poll showed 47% of U. S. citizens surveyed approved of the U. S. military action in Libya, while only 37% disapproved. Yet Americans also widely supported the U. S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, with an astounding 64% approving prior to the actual invasion. 6] Not only may the Obama Administration find itself on the wrong side of history, the American public may once again find itself there as well. A Slippery Slope As the world’s greatest power, the United States cannot simply refrain from making foreign policy declarations during world events such as those occurring now in North Africa and the Middle East. Yet, have the right foreign policy decisions been made thus far, and will decisions made in the near future be detrimental to vital U. S. interests? One option, which has yet to be discussed publicly by the Obama Administration, is U. S. support for the ruling government.
One has to wonder, if the Saudi Arabian government was under severe distress (unlikely at this point), would the U. S. support King Abdullah, a key ally, or the protestors demanding his removal? Could the U. S. afford, quite literally, for Saudi oil to fall into the hands of a government unfriendly to the U. S.? If the U. S. supported the Saudi monarchy during a popular uprising, it would risk condemnation among Muslims worldwide. Considering the rise in anti-U. S. sentiment that resulted from the invasion of Iraq, can the U. S. risk further alienating the Muslim world? Yet to satisfy the country’s thirst for oil, the U. S. eeds a stable, friendly Saudi Arabia. Could the U. S. risk losing its third largest supplier of oil?  Another option, utilized during the Tunisian Revolution, is one where the U. S. supports the popular uprising with words, but no action, calling for a peaceful resolution. In Tunisia, of limited importance to the U. S. , this seemed to work, somewhat of an easy way out, with few possible repercussions. With Egypt, the most complicated thus far, the U. S. preceded cautiously, forcefully calling for Mubarak not to use force against the demonstrators, but not stating initially that he should step down. As events unfolded, the U. S. inally called for his departure, but only when it seemed imminent. Again, a relatively safe, cautious approach, and perhaps the right one, as further U. S. involvement would have not likely changed the outcome. In Libya, the U. S. has decided to use military force to aid the rebels. It has called unequivocally for Gaddafi to go, even though Gaddafi has proven to be an ally in the fight against al Qaeda. While the no-fly zone is U. N. approved, and is being conducted with other states, in actuality it is more than just a ‘no-fly zone. ’ It is war, and it is interventionism. A slippery slope indeed. Choosing the right option among many
At this point, like all pivotal stages in sovereign state history, a leader must determine which way to go. Truman did so at the end of WWII, deciding to drop atomic bombs on Japan and ending the war, saving many American lives. Yet his decision brought on the atomic age and the threat of worldwide destruction. Still, one could argue that the atomic age would have come soon anyway. JFK did it during the Cuban Missile Crisis, with incredible insight and with great success. Yet his miscalculation could have resulted in nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Important foreign policy decisions are difficult to make, and many have long lasting effect.
So what is the best action for the U. S. to take going forward? The unrest in the Arab world has only begun. Will the U. S. and the Obama Administration wind up on the right or wrong side of history? While the best policy alternative is difficult to choose, one should be ruled out: the use of U. S. military force, unless its security or interests are put in severe jeopardy. Yet, it has already gone down that path, without any clear direction or end game. Libya is of marginal importance in terms of U. S. interests in the region compared to Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Yet the U. S. s now involved in a hastily arranged war with no clear direction, working with ‘Allies’ with no defined leader, and with limited support from the Arab League. In this case, as in many, war is not the answer. Of the possible alternative policies for this unfolding crisis, the U. S. chose the best when dealing with Egypt. Events occurred at a startling pace, yet the U. S. proceeded cautiously, calling for restraint from violence initially, then letting events unfold before making a bold policy statement. Of course, much was going on diplomatically that was unaware to the public. There is no doubt that the U.
S. conferred with the military powers in Egypt, having much influence due to the more than $1. 4 billion dollars in annual military aid. Diplomacy works, when it can. In Libya, diplomacy was not an option. Gaddafi stated early on that he would fight until the end. And some say he is crazy, which is hard to prove, but few would question whether he is mentally fit. So, with diplomacy off the table, is war the only answer? Taking into consideration the recent history of U. S. intervention, perhaps only the NATO operation in Bosnia can be considered a success, with the signing of the Dayton Accords in 2005.
Yet the peace in the Balkans is tepid at best. War is not the answer. The U. S. , despite its immense military power, does not always have the answer. As John F. Kennedy said in a speech he gave at the University of Washington in 1961, “We must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient; that we are only 6 percent of the world’s population; that we cannot impose our will upon the other 94 percent of mankind; that we cannot right every wrong or reverse every adversity; and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem. ” ———————–  U.
S. Energy Information Administration. (accessed March 19, 2011).  H. Rashad and Z. Khadr, The Demography of the Arab Region: New Challenges and Opportunities (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2002), 88-89.  Gregory White, “The 25 Governments That Could Get Crushed by Food Price Inflation,” (accessed March 19, 2011)  IKHWAN WEB, The Muslim Brotherhood’s Official English website. (accessed March 20, 2011)  Massimo Calabresi, “Obama Refines Talk of Libya Intervention,” (accessed March 22, 2011)  GALLUP. (accessed March 21, 2011)  U. S. Energy Information Administration. March 20 2011.