Day By Day

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Good President [continued] -- The Tunisian Uprising

The overthrow of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali illustrates quite clearly the core dilemma facing the United States in he Middle East. The central debate is between "neocons" who consider that the long term interests of the US are best served by promoting democracy and a respect for human rights within the region, and "realists" for whom political stability is the overriding consideration and who view democratization as a destabilizing imperative that threatens American interests, at least in the short term.

Of course, in practice these two conceptual camps are not mutually exclusive. As Henry Kissinger [the ultimate "realist"] has frequently pointed out, realists are not totally insensitive to human rights and generally favor the promotion of democracy, and neo-cons are not oblivious to the dangers that attend policies based on regime change. The differences are more in tone than substance. Generally speaking during the early years of the Bush administration, neocons were ascendant, but their influence waned as the war in Iraq dragged on inconclusively. The Obama administration began with a strong realist bias, but that has slowly segued into general disinterest and non-involvement.

Tunisia has reignited the debate within the foreign policy community. On the one hand many in the West celebrate that country's "jasmine revolution" and hope that it presages a broader wave of democratization throughout the region [here]. They argue out that support for corrupt and oppressive strong man rule only heightens tensions that inevitably, as in Tunisia, produce revolt and radicalism. Others worry that opening the political process will provide opportunities for radical groups to gain influence [here]. Already Islamist groups are rejoicing over the opportunity presented to them by Ben Ali's overthrow. However, faced with a situation fraught with uncertainties and ambiguities the Obama administration has been unwilling to take a stand with either camp, signaling a general disinterest and uninvolvement. Once again the Won has voted "present".

This detachment has not met with general favor in the Arab world. In a fascinating dialogue Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute and Issander El Amrani of "The Arabist" note that throughout the region there is a wakening nostalgia for George W. Bush, and a general dissatisfaction with Obama's policy of non-involvement. At least Bush, they argue, stood for something and promoted, if with limited effectiveness, desirable long-term goals in the region.

Nostalgia for Dubya in the Arab world. Imagine that!

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