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Tunisia: How the US Got It Wrong (and How to Make It Right)

The events in Tunisia again show how US foreign policy in the Middle East fails to fully understand the region.

Mark Levine

One sign read "Game Over". But in fact, the game has barely started.

The Facebook generation has taken to the streets and the "Jasmin Revolt" has become a revolution, at least as of the time of writing. And the flight of former President Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia is inspiring people across the Arab world to take to the streets and warn their own sclerotic and autocratic leaders that they could soon face a similar fate.

As the French paper Le Monde described it, scenes that were "unimaginable only days ago" are now occurring with dizzying speed. Already, in Egypt, Egyptians celebrate and show solidarity over Tunisia's collapse, chanting "Kefaya" and "We are next, we are next, Ben Ali tell Mubarak he is next." Protests in Algeria and Jordan could easily expand thanks to the inspiration of the tens of thousands of Tunisians, young and old, working and middle class, who toppled one of the world's most entrenched dictators. Arab bloggers are hailing what has happened in Tunisia as "the African revolution commencing... the global anti-capitalist revolution."

The birth of a human nationalism?

Around the turn of the new millennium, as the Arab world engaged in an intense debate over the nature of the emerging globalised system, one critic in the newspaper al-Nahar declared that an "inhuman globalisation" has been imposed on the Arab world when its peoples have yet even to be allowed to develop a "human" nationalism. Such a dynamic well describes the history of Tunisia, and most other countries in the Arab/Muslim world as well.

And so, if the people of Tunisia are lucky, they are in the midst of midwifing the Arab world's first human nationalism, taking control of their politics, economy and identity away from foreign interests and local elites alike in a manner that has not been seen in more than half a century.

But the way is still extremely treacherous. As a member of the Tajdid opposition party told the Guardian, "Totalitarianism and despotism aren't dead. The state is still polluted by that political system, the ancient regime and its symbols which have been in place for 55 years."

Indeed, the problem with most post-colonial nationalisms - whether that of the first generation of independence leaders or of the leaders who replaced (often by overthrowing) them - is precisely that they have always remained infected with the virus of greed, corruption and violence so entrenched by decades of European colonial rule. Tunisia's nascent revolution will only succeed if it can finally repair the damage caused by French rule and the post-independence regime that in so many ways continued to serve European and American - rather than Tunisian - interests.

A region's tipping point

The stakes could not be higher. The "Tunisian Scenario" could lead either to a greater democratic opening across the Arab world, or it could lead to the situation in Algeria in the early 1990s, where democratisation was abruptly halted and the country plunged into civil war when it seemed that an Islamist government might come to power. We can be sure that leaders across the Arab world are busy planning how to stymie any attempts by their people to emulate the actions of Tunisia's brave citizenry. But at this moment of such great historical consequence what is the US doing about the situation?

The timing couldn't have been more fortuitous, as Secretary of State Clinton was in the Middle East meeting with Arab political and civil society leaders at the moment events took their fateful turn. Yet when asked directly about the protests the day before Ben Ali fled her answer said volumes about the mentality of the Obama administration and the larger US and European foreign policy establishments to the unfolding situation.

"We can't take sides."

A more tone deaf response would have been hard to imagine. This was a moment when the Obama administration could have seized the reins of history and helped usher in a new era in the Arab/Muslim world world. In so doing it could have done more to defeat the forces of extremism than a million soldiers in AfPak and even more drone strikes could ever hope to accomplish. And Mrs. Clinton declared America's attention to remain on the sideline.

Obama's Reagan moment

Can we imagine that President Reagan, for whom Obama has declared his admiration, refusing to take sides as young people began dismantling the Iron Curtain? Indeed, even when freedom seemed a distant dream, Reagan went to Berlin and challenged Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!"

It's not as if the Obama administration doesn't understand what kind of regime it was dealing with in Tunisia. As the now infamous WikiLeaks cable from the US Ambassador in Tunis to his superiors in Washington made clear, "By many measures, Tunisia should be a close US ally. But it is not." Why? "The problem is clear: Tunisia has been ruled by the same president for 22 years."

Indeed, WikiLeaks did Clinton and Obama's job: It told the truth, and in doing so was a catalyst for significant change in the country - yet another example of how the release of all those classified documents has helped, rather than harmed, American interests (or at least the interests of the American people, if not its political and economic elite), even if the Obama administration refuses to admit it.

What is clear is that if the massacre in Tuscon last week might have provided Obama with his "Clinton moment", as he eloquently led the country on the path towards unity and healing, the Jasmin Revolution has handed him his Reagan moment. Obama needs to stop playing catch up to events, lay aside hesitation and throw his support behind radical change in the region, behind young people across the Middle East and North Africa who could topple the regimes who have done more to increase terrorism that Osama bin Laden could dream of accomplishing.

Read the full article at Al-Jazeera.

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Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

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