Monday, October 10, 2011

America's Misreading Of The Arab Spring Will Backfire

Washington needs to clearly and unambiguously trust forces of change that are reshaping this part of the world
By Abdulkhaleq Abdullah
America’s misreading of the Arab Spring will backfire
The pending American veto at the UN Security Council against the Palestinian application for full membership to the UN and the Congressional move to block $200 million (Dh734 million) in financial aid to the Palestinian National Authority shows the extent to which US policy towards the Arab World is helplessly stacked in the pre-Arab Spring era. Washington is tragically misreading the epochal changes of 2011 and its dealings with the 10-month-old Arab Spring have been particularly inconsistent and hypocritical. It has often found itself on the wrong side of history.
Washington was totally taken by surprise by the suddenness, the massiveness and the speed of the Arab Spring. The Obama administration was completely in the dark and was caught off guard. America used to be in the driving seat and on top of events in this supposedly vital region. And for nearly four decades it was the ultimate power that could claim to unilaterally shape regional events to its liking and according to its regional and global agenda. America's dominance was most visible after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and in the aftermath of the tragic invasion of Iraq in 2003. But things have changed over the past decade. This time around the Obama administration did not do its homework and, thank God, the Arab Spring was not made in America.
The Obama administration was not just taken by surprise like everyone else, but Washington did not know what to make of the Arab Spring and at least for a while it was at loss about the proper course of action. The events this year were unfolding too fast and it was a tough call: whether to stand by the 40-year-old status quo or simply risk the leap and embrace the forces of change sweeping the Arab world. There was an apparent debate on the proper policy response to the Arab Spring. On the one hand, there were the usual diehard political realists in Washington who called for a cautious and calculated approach. Luckily, there was also a team of soft-spoken idealists who counselled US President Barack Obama for a more principled policy. At the critical moment, Obama decided it was time to embrace the forces of change which were unleashed in Tunisia and Egypt and throughout the region. Intuitively, Obama realised that something really big and extraordinary was happening in the streets of the Arab world and he decided to be on the right side of history.
Political hypocrisy
However, Washington's overall reaction to the amazing events of 2011 has been typically inconsistent. During the initial stage of the Arab Spring and in cases like Egypt and Tunisia, Obama was certainly forthcoming and supportive of forces of change. But he was reluctant and not as forthcoming in other cases, like Yemen and even Syria. He was sometimes on the right side of history, but often completely on the wrong side of it. While embracing the Egyptian revolution, he held back on endorsing forces of change in Bahrain. He demanded, although belatedly, the departure of President Bashar Al Assad of Syria but was timid to make the call on the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. The credibility gap between principles and self-interest of America remains wide and exposes political hypocrisy of the worst kind.
America needs to clearly and unambiguously trust forces of change that are reshaping the Arab world. This includes working with the young people of the Arab world, the various Islamist and the post-Islamist movements of the Arab Spring, the liberal forces who can be easily sidelined and lost in the new political landscape, Al Jazeera and the many souls behind the new social media in the region. On a deeper level America needs to genuinely trust the more plural, possibly the more democratic and indeed the more challenging Arab world.
Washington has supported the political status quo for too long. It stood by despised dictators and corrupt leaders and still does. Clearly, the status quo is no longer sustainable and many of the old, supposedly reliable allies, are on shaky ground. It will be a huge blunder if Washington underestimates the mood for change in the region. Many in the US are still cynical, some are ambivalent and dismissive, and many more are suspicious of the Arab Spring and see nothing but violence and a new era of chaos.
What America needs the most is a new approach towards the region. It needs to think of the Arab Spring as an opportunity and not just as a challenge. Of course, there are tonnes of old and new challenges. But the Arab Spring has provided a new opportunity waiting to be taken. There is a once-in-a-while window of opportunity to build a more moderate, a more plural and a possibly a more prosperous Arab world. This might be way too optimistic but the logic of the moment calls for optimism. The Arab Spring calls for a new start to American policy in the region.
The place to start is the critical Palestinian issue where America needs to be on the side of justice. It is elementary to say that the Palestinians deserve a state of their own. The decision to veto Palestinian membership to the UN only perpetuates injustice and keeps America on the wrong side of history. It proves beyond doubt that Washington is miserably misreading and mishandling the Arab Spring.
-This commentary was published in The Gulf News on 11/10/2011
-Abdulkhaleq Abdullah is Professor of Political Science, Emirates University

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