January 27, 2011

U.S. On Wrong End of Tunisia's Revolution

They flock to the station as if they’re afraid of being left behind. Tunisia’s revolutionary train has departed to an unknown location and it doesn’t really matter where. Anywhere is better than before, a sentiment that many Muslim populaces can deeply relate to. Now they all chase Tunisia’s train, fiercely aware that their window won’t stay open for long. And here comes America running up behind, trying to hop on the caboose.

Why would anyone look back on what caused them to rise up in the first place?

Tunisia’s “Jasmine” revolution has spawned a massive chain reaction along two rails. First come the revolutionary-inspired protests that have broken out in Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Iraq. Then comes the U.S. claim that America supports all peoples’ aspirations for freedom. Clearly Washington has missed this freedom train. Partially responsible for nursing those regimes now facing the wrath of their marginalized peoples, U.S. officials are learning the WikiLeaks way that the time to switch policies is before, not after, the truth bleeds out.

The similarities between Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen link together to form a putrid trend in U.S. foreign policy. Many factors tilted the overthrow of ex-Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali: abuse from security forces, high-level corruption, and economic hardship. The revolution lived out its life through Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor whose self-immolation provided the tipping point in Tunisia’s revolution. A unique catalyst, Bouazizi had been harassed by local security since youth and never stopped giving food to the poor.

But it didn’t help that WikiLeaks revealed America’s political and economic complicity in Ben Ali’s regime. Washington’s blase reaction to his landslide 2009 re-election isn’t even a secret.

Now U.S. officials from President Barack Obama on down vow to support the will of Tunisians, as if 2009 occurred outside their watch. “We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia,” he declared in his State of the Union address, “where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.”

Turns out the will of the people was stronger than a dictator and his U.S. muscle. Sadly Tunisians have no reason to believe Obama’s words.

This exact scenario is unfolding in Egypt. With Egypt’s Internet offline, opposition protests and the government’s violent reaction have heated up to the point where many are seriously considering the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s government. And here comes America to piggy back its dead weight on the revolutionary spirit. Obama told a YouTube townhall, “I've always said to him [Mubarak] that making sure that they are moving forward on reform - political reform, economic reform - is absolutely critical to the long-term well being of Egypt.”

And while briefing the press with Nasser Judeh, Jordan’s Foreign Minister, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton innocently declared, “We believe strongly that the Egyptian Government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic, and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people. The United States is committed to working with Egypt and with the Egyptian people to advance such goals.”

Of course, Obama and Clinton also declined to publicly address Egypt’s parliamentary election last November, leaving State Department officials to issue late-night press releases as police beat the disenfranchised. So great is America’s concern for Egyptian freedom that the opposition wasn't surprised about the lack of U.S. support. In other words, Egyptians expected the White House to aid in their suppression, accustomed as they are to its protection of Mubarak.

How can Obama and Clinton honestly tell them that America has their back when Washington has repeatedly allowed them to fall? And why will this time be any different when the revolutionary fervor is driven, not supported, by America?

This fever releases the same decades-old energy wherever it spreads, making Yemen a prime target. Mobilized groups of students awaiting the slightest spark rode the very first wave of copy-cat Tunisian protests. Then the government foolishly arrested female activist Tawakul Karman, a futile action that catalyzed protesters into securing her release. Thousands of protesters now march down the streets of Sana’a calling for the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a key U.S. ally in its war against al-Qaeda.

Some of the opposition will settle for reform, fearing a power vacuum. But given the level of marginalization inside Yemen, both with its secessionist movements and the urban poor, their movement is capable of snowballing.

Clinton claims to support these protests too, yet the truth is that she had no choice. Having arrived in Sana'a in the middle of a power struggle between Saleh and Yemen’s opposition, Clinton arranged a high-profile meeting with opposition leaders to pledge her support. But she nevertheless walked a soft-line on Saleh’s efforts to remove his term limits, encouraging the opposition to accept the government’s offer for dialogue. Though voicing concern at Saleh’s controversial amendment, Clinton then dropped several hints that Yemen must remain “united,” warning shots to the northern Houthi tribe and secessionist Southern Movement.

Mohammed al-Sabry, leader of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, now finds himself marching alongside fellow protesters: "We want constitutional amendments but we want amendments that don't lead to the continuance of the ruler and the inheritance of power to his children."

Washington’s dilemma in Yemen is no different than in Tunisia and Egypt. Known to prop up an unpopular dictator, flip-flopping with credibility is impossible, making it unrealistic to expect a significant change in U.S. policy. The White House can’t press harder on Saleh because he dangles the threat of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) over the U.S. mainland. So U.S. officials must walk a middle course, appeasing protesters with words and pressuring Saleh for token reform in private.

Basically, do enough to maintain the status quo.

As in Tunisia and Egypt, too many Yemenis justifiably believe that America is complicit in their misery. Though Obama administration officials have backed Yemenis’ right to "democracy," supporting Saleh's administration as a matter of policy runs contrary to this assertion. Were America sincere about its non-military emphasis, it would have responded to Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab by leading with non-military operations, not air-striking Yemen’s mountainous terrain and killing dozens of civilians. Only now, after AQAP's growth has exposed this overly-militarized policy as counterproductive, are U.S. officials trying to reverse their narrative into the kinder light of political and economic reform.

Thus Clinton is unlikely to convince many Yemenis of America’s benevolence.

One gets the feeling that the White House, lacking a real course of action, has resorted to throwing everything at the wall. Clinton even used Tunisia and Egypt to highlight America’s urgency for permanent peace in the Middle East. The Palestine Papers say otherwise, as does the blunt reality that Washington is partially responsible for the current breakdown between Israel and the Palestinians. Tardy on all fronts, a lack of proaction has forced the White House to react throughout the entire crisis.

The overriding dilemma is that America has arrived too late to these popular backlashes, and can never fully catch up to the front. Obama’s optimistic rhetoric clashes sharply with his willingness to look the other way in regards to oppressive regimes. Clinton repeatedly invoked Obama’s declaration to support “the democratic aspirations of all peoples,” but it’s going to take more than one line to prove himself to the world’s oppressed. Words can no longer extract him from trouble.

The reform that Clinton now advises to Washington's endangered allies must be equaled in U.S. foreign policy. Too much of America's war against al-Qaeda depends on enabling unpopular and sometimes unlawful regimes, a fact no kill count can erase. Washington doesn’t have the license to drive Tunisia's freedom train - it has to watch the tail fade into the distance.

Hopefully next time will be different.


  1. Right to the point, James. But where is the freedom train going? My view is that it is none of our business. The destination is away from America which implies that it can't be any worse. But the only guarantee of an improvement is if there is some sense for the peoples of the North African and Arab countries of their own choice counting, even if it proves wrong. Even if it leads to to an Islamic tyranny. Clinton and Obama are driving the train faster down the track on which Bush abandoned it. A runaway train to ............

  2. Yes, the destination is critical because of the risk of a power vacuum. I'm going to analyze this trend in further detail, but suffice to say, each state will yield its own results based on its individual conditions. So Egypt and Yemen may turn out differently even though they mirror each other.

    There's something to be said about letting states succeed or fail on their own merit. But given America's historic influence in the region, I do think that Washington has a duty to involve itself, just in a positive way. But now we're being idealistic rather than realistic.