Obama the Revolutionary and the Sampson Option

By Adel Al Toraifi

23/02/2011

There is no doubt this is a chaotic phase, where dozens of turbulent protests and demonstrations have spread, demanding the overthrow of regimes in a number of countries in the Middle East. Some of these demonstrations have been justified, campaigning against leaders who have spent several dark decades in power. As for the other demonstrations, they have been motivated by different – and mixed – motives, some of them ideological, others based on sect or class. The result is that “revolution fever” has swept everywhere, so it is difficult to distinguish between the various protests. All are championing the same slogan, that of “regime change”, through demonstrations and civil disobedience.

There is no need to provide evidence of the autocratic and evil nature of a number  of Arab regimes, and the social and economic crises suffered by these countries, most notably the tendency of leaders to hold on to power for life. However, what we are witnessing today is a state of irresponsible and uncontrolled chaos. Some argue that what is happening is a “democratic revolution”, conducted through peaceful protests, with concern for values and principles such as “freedom”, “democracy” and “human rights”. However, such a claim presents several genuine problems; most notably that democracy, freedom and human rights are all Western liberalist concepts. We are all aware that considerable debate has arisen over the interpretation or definition of such concepts, and the means of applying them to the Arab region and Islam. Have all these differences been overcome as a result of the youth revolution? Or will they be simply overcome in the future? These questions may take years to answer.

What is most striking here is the confused stance of the US administration, having been faced with an earthquake of revolutions in the region. Whilst he adopted a hesitant attitude before President Ben Ali fled Tunisia, President Obama’s tone was far stricter when he claimed that former President Hosni Mubarak should step down immediately. The White House spokesman said “Now means now…not in September”. Yet the US administration returned to its cautious stance with regards to Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, trying to maintain a balance [with its interests]. The US issued hard-line statements against these regimes, but at the same time it conducted telephone conversations with them, expressing that the US was keen to preserve mutual interests.

There is a complete contradiction in the actions of the US administration: While it demands that President Mubarak step down immediately, it puts pressure on President Mahmoud Abbas to withdraw the draft Arab resolution, condemning Israel for continuing with settlement construction, a resolution which nearly 130 countries have endorsed. Abbas’ response was frank, when he told the US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton that he was not willing to take a decision that may “provoke the Palestinian masses”, no matter how much this would anger the US administration, because the Palestinian masses were more dangerous. This is what the US administration has failed to understand so far!
When the protests began, the US administration had three options: firstly, to remain neutral and accept the results – as [Henry] Kissinger had called for. The second option was to side with some existing regimes rather than others, or thirdly to attempt to strike a balance, by announcing its support for the demonstrations, whilst maintaining a channel of communication with the threatened regime. It has been said that Obama refuses to stand on the wrong side of history, but what the US administration does not realize is that it does not have any part in this history.

The reality which the US administration must realize is that America is effectively powerless from now on. Its weakness has been blatantly exposed, when one of its major allies was toppled and the US could not move a muscle, but rather participated in Mubarak’s downfall. Some officials in the US administration argue that what is happening here is a historical process of “creative destruction”, and that the administration must accept the outcome of what happens. This particular attitude is similar to the policies of the “neo-conservatives”, who once argued that the only way for change to occur in the region would be through a comprehensive regime change. This comparison was expressed by Condoleezza Rice in her latest article, criticizing the Obama administration by saying that it is doing exactly what the George W. Bush administration was previously attempting. She said: “The United States knows democracy to be a long process – untidy, disruptive and even chaotic at times.” (Washington Post, 16 Feb 2011).

Rice’s attempt to portray the US administration as an entity standing on the side of “freedom” oversimplifies an already basic way of thinking. Rice and other commentators, including the US administration, seem enthusiastic whenever they see a “revolutionary” phase, which raises the slogan of “freedom”. However, they fail to realize that the bulk of “revolutions” in history have used “freedom” as their slogan, in an effort to overthrow the ruling regimes. Yet the vital question to be asked is: Freedom in what sense? And at what price?
The problem for President Obama is that he presented himself to the people as a “realist” president. During his inaugural speech, he said that the US would not seek to impose any kind of rule upon another country, and that each nation must follow its own path. However, his policies today have exceeded the efforts of the “neo-conservatives”, in fulfilling the principle of “creative destruction.” It is ironic that this principle first appeared in the writings of Marks and Engels, describing the ill effects of capitalist liberalism in the “Communist Manifesto”, 1848.

When the anti-Shah demonstrations and riots escalated [in Iran], the Carter administration tried to entice the Iranian army to stage a coup – when General Huyser visited the country. However, the US failed to do so, and later on welcomed the “freedom” revolution. The US ignored its ambassador’s warnings, suggesting that the influence of Khomeini and his movement was extending to all sectors of the state, and several months later the US embassy was occupied for 444 days, in an act that greatly humiliated the US President. Today, the same scenario is being repeated in the Middle East. Dozens of American, Western and Arab intellectuals and journalists – exactly as happened in 1979 – will celebrate the Middle East revolutions, liberating the people from dictatorship. However, the region’s ills and misfortunes will not necessarily be eliminated by the overthrow of some regimes.

“For after every Caesar that dies
Is born another Caesar” (The Last Words of Spartacus, Amal Donkol).

The US administration has abandoned its policy of realism, and is now championing unrealistic ideals. Thus it is not inconceivable that America would support a man like Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Yet the US administration should now be prepared to confront the complex sectarian, religious, social and economic reality – which has been further complicated by the recent unrest – and the possibility of the emergence of populist regimes, threatened by sectarian and civil wars. Obama believes that “creative destruction” can be implemented without paying the price, but sooner or later we will see the result. The administration is now faced with the Samson Option – when it stands by revolutions, it should realize that its interests are also prone to collapse.

Carter was an avid supporter of the freedom revolutions, but then oil prices dropped. Obama will soon realize that security, stability and development in this part of the world are no less important than the freedom of expression. The people of the region are not necessarily obliged to consider American interests, in return for the US supporting “freedom” for two weeks.

Renowned American politician Kenneth Waltz says “A lot of people don’t like realists…Realists face the world as it is. Most people want the world to be nicer and for people to be better.”

Published in Asharq Alawsat Newspaper

About altoraifi
Al Toraifi is the current Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla, the leading Arab magazine. A specialist on Saudi foreign policy, he is recognized as a commentator and participant in televised programs for CNN, NBC, BBC and Al-Arabia TV. Awarded the post-graduate International Conflict Prize 2008 from Kingston University for outstanding work, Mr Al-Toraifi is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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