The Arab Awakening: The Name Changes, But Will the Song Remain the Same?

If you can’t beat ‘em, try smothering ‘em with a bear hug.

While no doubt the United States is quite nervous about where all the Middle East protests are headed – the unknown factor rattles the stock market and oil prices – the Obama Administration, not without internal divisions, has, grudgingly, accepted the need for some change – democratization and shifts in economic policy – in the region.

It is tactically clever (and realistic) to ride the wave – rather than oppose it outright. Those discredited dictators – the Mubaraks, Ben Alis – around whom the United States has built and cultivated its post World War II Middle East policy have moved from ‘category asset’ to ‘downright-liability’. For the moment, let’s bypass the question of whether this new moral epiphany results from ‘a position of principle’ or rather, simply a response to the flow of events that the Obama Administration neither expected nor for which it was prepared.

It is precisely the element of the unknown which scares U.S. policy makers, plus the fact that the administration has tried to play down: most of the corrupt regimes which are ‘facing their maker’ have had strong political and military support from Washington (and the European Union) for decades.

It is easier to praise the democratic upsurge, criticize repressive crackdowns with arms and tear gas that usually has ‘made in USA’ on it and to avoid the U.S. military interventionalist impulse, when, as with Tunisia, strategic interests are less at play. It becomes more difficult as the protest wave comes closer to the oil producing and transporting region as with Egypt, and almost irresistible when oil production itself is involved as it is with Libya.

Watching the pressure grow for a U.S. and/or NATO military intervention in Libya to oust Gaddafi and end the growing bloodshed there, one has to wonder if anyone has learned anything from history? The answer seems to be ‘apparently not much’. We’ve been ‘kind of’ here before.

A U.S. military intervention in Libya is – let me say it frankly – an extremely bad idea. It will strengthen Gaddafi’s hand; he’s long been able to rally support against the big outsider bully (who did in fact try to assassinate him by cruise missile in April, 1986). It would undoubtedly inflame anti-American sentiment throughout the region, pull the United States into yet another military quagmire adding to the current list (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia). To their credit, it appears that both Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (in a recent speech) want none of it…for the moment.

How long ago was it that popular support was mobilized for military intervention to unseat a ruling tyrant from an oil producing country and ‘liberate’ its people? The end result to that ‘crusade’ is a country destroyed, maybe a million people dead, 3½ million or so made refugees, an oil industry privatized and ‘enduring’ U.S. military bases, some as large as medium sized American cities, in Iraq.

The Tunisian people resolved the debate within a paralyzed Obama Administration over whether or not to support Zine Ben Ali in his political death rattle by massive, largely peaceful demonstrations that forced the president and his influential wife to flee.

But not every social movement can place roses in tank gun turrets and not get blown to bits for it. Let us hope that Libya does not descend much further into civil war, that its people in not-so-peaceful revolt – methods forced upon them by objective conditions – can end the debate in Washington, London, Paris, etc. – overthrowing Gaddafi and defeating private armies and mercenaries. It’s a tall order.

Supporting ‘pliant’ third world nationalism

With China making inroads into Africa, (imagine, they offer loans to poor African countries without structural adjustment criteria!) the U.S. will be well served to embrace Middle Eastern democracy for obvious reasons. But as long as the United States – and many of the core countries of the world economy – are addicted to oil at a time of tight oil markets, dramatic shifts in U.S. Middle East policy in support of dramatic democratization are unlikely.

The Obama Administration hopes the changes will be ‘manageable’, that new political figures (or older ones forced to make concessions) won’t diverge too much from U.S. global economic and security policies. Like other U.S. administrations since Truman, it has long supported a certain kind of pliant Third World nationalism.

The nationalism of Ben Ali, Mubarak – or better, Pinochet – has suited it far more than that of Nasser and Lumumba.

Of course, the Obama Administration has no choice but to accept the changes unfolding and with which they can hardly keep up. Then again, we have seen that Washington has plans for the Middle East, though the peoples of the Middle East have their own, largely yet to be defined, agendas.

Nor is Washington’s policy of ‘celebrating democracy’ while quietly working to dampen its impact particularly new. In the 1980s, at the same time Ronald Reagan was trying to smother Nicaraguan democracy, he was making different moves in the Philippines.

Will it be Cuba 1959 or the Philippines 1986?

In early 1986, a great Filipino democratic wave broke the back of the Marcos dictatorship. The issues were more or less the same as in the Middle East today: growing income inequality, crushing poverty and debt, massive corruption and repression. As the demonstrations swelled to ‘Tahrir Square proportions’ then U.S. President Ronald Reagan sent Senator Paul Laxalt to offer Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos a deal he couldn’t refuse.

If his autobiography is to be believed, Laxalt successfully negotiated Marcos’ departure from power. The deal included the promise of safe haven in Hawaii plus U.S. protection of Marcos’ billion dollar assets. Sound familiar?

Marcos, whose family wealth today by some estimates might top $50 billion, was removed with much fanfare. The Filipino people celebrated and for good reason. However, while the tyrant and his wife with her famous 2,000 plus pairs of shoes (a novice by the way compared to Tunisia’s Leila Trabelsi) were forced to flee to Honolulu, ‘the system’ remained largely unchanged. It was a bit more open politically, but…

  • The new government honored the enormous debt burden the country had incurred during the Marcos years. The economic policies that were at the root cause of the crisis were hardly altered.
  • The Filipino strategic relations with the United States remained unaltered.
  • The crushing poverty has remained largely intact; the decay of health, educational infrastructure hardly improved.

The leadership’s face changed, but ‘the system’ remained essentially the same. A quarter of a century later, the Philippines remains a country mired in debt, its government still addressing appalling poverty, its democratic moment a distant memory of things past. The Marcos children are making a political comeback in the Philippines, running for public office. Could this happen to the Ben Ali, Trabelsi, Mubarak and Khadaffi offspring?

Are these the kind of changes that the Obama Administration is working for in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond?

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.