The Arab Spring: Obama’s Vietnam?
In a telephone call between former United States President Lyndon B. Johnson and Senator Richard Russell (May 1964), the president admitted that the Vietnam War could be a protracted one and that he did not see any signs for a resolution on the horizon. Despite this, the president said that the US should continue fighting this war to prevent other countries falling, like dominoes-echoing the famous domino theory coined by Eisenhower-into the hands of the Eastern bloc. Following this, Johnson said that the American people were unaware of the war’s long-term importance, adding that he might lose his popularity as a result of this but history would prove him right.
But has history proven Johnson right? Perhaps President Obama, who starts his second term in office this week, would do well to remember what happened to his predecessor. In fact, history did not prove Johnson right; rather the Vietnam War overshadowed all the important work that he did as president. In a Gallup poll on the nation’s greatest president, President Johnson came second-to-last, just above President Nixon who resigned from office in the wake of a humiliating scandal. This is something that fails to reflect President Johnson’s efforts to establish civil rights, nor his courage in confronting his opponents within the Democratic Party who warned him that his Great Society project-among whose objectives was combating poverty-would harm party unity. In a famous response to skeptics, Johnson said: I know the risks are great and we might lose the South, but those sorts of states may be lost anyway. Today, President Obama appears to be in a better position, for although he inherited a weak economy, what he has done in terms of economic reform, and what he has achieved via his health care project and other popular decisions, enabled him to secure a second term in office without much effort.
As he is the first American president of African-Muslim descent, and is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama has already entered the annals of history. However this long list of achievements is overshadowed by a negligible foreign policy and a weak performance record on the security and international peace fronts.
The popular uprisings that struck a number of Arab capitals in early 2011 took the Obama administration by surprise. What later became known as the Arab Spring represented an unprecedented shock to President Obama and US policy in the Middle East since Saddam Hussein’s 1990 occupation of Kuwait.
In his first inaugural speech, Obama pledged that America would not seek to impose its model on anybody. He benefited from his reputation as an opponent of the war on Iraq, earning the affection of a broad audience outside of the US, even in the Middle East which is known historically for its anti-American views. Consequently, whilst the new president initially enjoyed widespread popularity, all these hopes came crashing down following the Arab Spring. The US administration had to choose between standing with the regimes allied to it or supporting the youth who were protesting in these capitals and raising banners of democracy, human rights, and calling for an end to tyranny.
In Tunisia, Obama chose to support the revolution, as Ben Ali’s departure would not represent a significant loss to American interests. However when protests broke out in Egypt, the Obama administration found itself facing a difficult predicament; should they throw their long-standing Egyptian ally under the bus or stand against the protesters in order to force both sides to follow a transitional road-map within the confines of the constitution? The US administration divided over this choice; there were those who argued that losing the Egyptian street would be less harmful to regional stability than an Arab Spring domino effect, while supporters argued that the president had to stand on the right side of history.
Over the first four months of 2011 the administration chose the second path; however they became even more confused when protests broke out in Libya and Syria. Should they continue supporting the popular uprisings even if these took up arms, or was it enough to issue statements even if the dictator spread mischief through the earth and destroy(ed) crops and cattle? (Surat al-Baqara; Verse 205).
On the second anniversary of the Arab Spring, the Obama administration appears less concerned about what is happening to the millions of displaced and destitute in Syria’s cities. Therefore it does not seem that the US administration is standing on the right side of history in this regard.
In his first speech on US policy in the Middle East following Mubarak’s ouster, Obama praised the young protesters, saying, A new generation has emerged. And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied. As for the Egyptian youth, Wael Ghoneim-who voted in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood at the presidential elections-Obama said that it was no surprise that one of the Tahrir Square leaders should be a Google executive.
What is certain today is that those who have been elected in Tunisia and Egypt are not members of the Facebook or Twitter generation, or even the Google generation, nor are they necessarily fans of American-style democracy. It is also important to note that the Syrian youth today are not carrying smartphones; rather they are carrying arms and bombs.
President Obama’s administration tried to distance itself from the chaos that naturally emerged following the Arab Spring. This resulted in a chaos that extended as far as Mali and other African states. Gaddafi was a dictator whose hands were stained with blood; however there can be no doubt that Al-Qaeda benefited from the chaos that followed his ouster.
The US press heaped praise on President George W. Bush in late 2002 for his post-9/11 leadership; however the Iraq war undermined his reputation despite the fact that he gave unprecedented aid to Africa. As for President Clinton, he acknowledged his regret regarding what happened in Rwanda and the failure of his administration to intervene.
The Economist magazine features a picture of President Barack Obama looking into a mirror on its front cover, underneath the headline: How will history see me? It will be interesting, many years from today, to read Obama’s own view regarding his position on the Arab Spring, and whether he was really on the right side-or sidelines-of history.