19 May 2011

Reflections on the 'Arab Spring'

Osama bin Laden and the President of the United States agreed on at least one thing: that the "Arab Spring" popular uprisings, or at least the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, are good things for the region. In what MSNBC idiotically calls a "posthumous tape," the late al-Qaeda leader praised the region's rebels in a recording made some time before he was killed. The tape was only released posthumously; bin Laden has no supernatural powers that we are yet aware of. In any event, his comments seem to have been phrased, if we can judge by the fragmentary translation provided here, in the vague, flowery rhetoric of which many Arab orators are supposedly fond. The terrorist emir worried, however, that Muslims would not take full advantage of the opportunity of the moment. "Lack of awareness" on the part of the people threatens to turn the Arab Spring into a "great catastrophe," bin Laden warned, if the Ummah doesn't follow through and "destroy the idols and statues and establish justice and faith" by liberating themselves from "man-made laws." He feared that too many years of rulers broadcasting "the wrong culture" had handicapped or brainwashed the masses, as apparently proven by their failure to rise at his prompting and revolt in his way -- the so-called way of Allah.

The President's remarks today were more plodding and pedantic, but echoed bin Laden's in their hope that the Arab Spring would lead to something better if the Arabs played their cards right. Obama apparently buys into the premise that anti-American sentiment in the Middle East was the product of tyrannical propaganda. "In the face of [modern] challenges, too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people's grievances elsewhere," he said today, "The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half century after the end of colonialism." Israel, too, became a scapegoat, but while the President said later in his talk that the Jewish state was obliged to make serious compromises for the sake of peace, as far as the U.S. is concerned, "America's interests are not hostile to peoples' hopes; they are essential to them." Obama vows that America will continue to pursue its "core interests" in the region, but will no longer do so in a "narrow" way, without recognizing the needs of the region's poor or the right of its people to speak their minds. Every prior President from Carter to George W. Bush has pretty much said the same thing. While Obama emphasizes that "we must proceed with a sense of humility," let's recall that his immediate predecessor also promised a "humble" foreign policy before he was provoked out of his humility.

While the President hoped to show firmness toward Israel with his headline insistence that it retreat to its borders from before the Six-Day War, his hostility toward Iran was more convincing. He called the Iranians hypocrites for cheering on the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, not to mention the resistance among Bahraini Shiites, while allegedly aiding Syria in its suppression of the anti-Assad uprising. But who isn't hypocritical in the Middle East? Obama himself was at pains to perpetuate the story that the apparently inept Libyan army was so extraordinary a threat to its own dissident people that military intervention against Col. Khadafi was justified, while it was not justified against the still-deplorable repression of dissent in Bahrain -- nor, apparently, against comparably bloody repressions in Africa. Bahraini repression was clearly deplorable, but perhaps because Iran "has tried to take advantage of the turmoil," America would do no more than deplore it. It's clear enough that for Obama, the "great catastrophe" would be the emergence of Iran as the superpower or even the role model of the region. As a good hater of Shiites, bin Laden would probably agree with this point, too. Overall, of course, Obama and Osama had starkly different visions for the future of the Middle East and the Arab world. They were alike, however, in their insistence that Arabs play roles assigned to them by Islamism's militant imperatives or America's liberal-individualist ideology. Each will be, or would have been, disappointed if the aspiring Arabs fail to behave as religion or ideology commands that they should, but true believers in democracy should have no such reservations -- yet. We'll have as much right as anyone to criticize the results if things go wrong, but let's withhold judgment while the Arabs figure things out for themselves.

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