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Sandstorms

Barack Obama and the Great Arab Revolt.

May 9, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 32 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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We may never know whether the conjecture of the historian Fouad Ajami is correct: that President Barack Obama sought the approval of the Arab League for the air war against Muammar Qaddafi because he thought the league—an organization that has always shown greater sympathy for the region’s rulers than for its citizenry—would turn down the French-led request to unleash Western airpower to save Benghazi. President Obama has certainly seemed sincere, if not Kennedyesque, in his intent to save the rebels in the eastern half of the country from the depredations of the most Orwellian strongman in the Middle East. But his sincerity rests in constant tension with the core tenet of a developing Obama Doctrine: American hegemony is not a good thing, either for the United States or for the world. 

Sandstorms

President Obama and administration officials give the impression that success in the Middle East is defined more by the firmness with which the United States adheres to that principle than by what actually happens on the ground. As Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Antony Blinken, put it in speaking of the Libyan mission: “We did lead—we cleared the way for the allies.” Thus, what is critical is whether the Europeans in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are front and center in the Libyan war and not whether that division of labor compromises the opposition’s chances of a timely military success—or even the integrity of NATO itself. A protracted stalemate in Libya is thus preferable to a war where the United States would be the decisive military agent of regime change.

It’s a good bet that the president, let alone the politicos and think-tankers who staff his administration and cut their teeth describing the failings of George W. Bush in Iraq, has wondered what would be the moral difference between President Obama who, without U.N. authorization, unleashes the CIA and Special Forces in support of a Libyan opposition incapable of overthrowing Qaddafi, and President Bush, who downed Saddam Hussein with more conventional U.S. boots on the ground. By Obama’s calculations, American standing in the Muslim world is somehow enhanced if special forces from Britain, France, and Italy—the three former colonial powers of North Africa—train and militarily guide the natives while the United States kills selectively with predator drones. 

The Middle East is now more in play than it has been since the British and French empires started cracking after World War II. The common grievances of the oppressed denizens—the lawlessness of the ruling class, the individual and collective shame that comes with unrequited hopes and ambitions, the unrelenting boredom of young men without enough money or women—have melded with universal ideals. Democracy, individualism, and the (very Islamic) right of rebellion against unjust rulers have combined to give courage to young men and women whose forefathers were often pilloried and praised for their obsequiousness. Hegel’s famous line about Islamic civilization—“Islam has long vanished from the stage of history at large, and has retreated into oriental ease and repose”—obviously needs to be revised. A dynamic spirit is again loose in Arab lands—it’s been galloping in Iran since 1979—altering our and, much more important, their conception of what citizenship means in the Middle East. 

This spirit caught President Obama completely off-guard. The president’s odd foreign-policy mix of the “realism” of George H.W. Bush with the anti-imperialism of Frantz Fanon, which has been spiced since Egypt’s revolt with touches of George W. Bush’s freedom agenda, is a welter of contradictions that the president and his staff have yet to glue into a coherent strategy. (Pity the Egyptian, Libyan, and Bahraini prodemocracy demonstrators, or the conservative Saudi or Bahraini ruling families, who are trying to assess the president’s words and actions.) George H.W. Bush is reputed to have remarked when Hosni Mubarak was sent packing that he was a “good man” who did not live ostentatiously and a “true friend of the United States” who has been shabbily treated. His son, on hearing the same news, reportedly called the former Egyptian president a “bastard” who deserved his fall. 

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