Did Obama's Promise Trigger the Arab Revolt?

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This is the first post by a member of the coming week's guest team, Chuck Spinney. More background on him and the others here.

A word more about Chuck before turning the floor back to him and other guests. In the thirty-plus years that I've known him, I've never heard a partisan statement out of Chuck. He is hard on most politicians --as he is here on Obama for what he argues is a squandered / betrayed promise to bring real "change" to America's dealings with the world. But he has been if anything harder on Obama's opponents and predecessors, including in what became a wildly-popular chart showing Democrats' and Republicans' comparative records in balancing budgets. This is for context about one of the most detached and relentlessly logical observers I have known. Over to him -- and through the coming week, his colleagues. JF.
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Did Obama's Promise Trigger the Arab Revolt?

By Chuck Spinney

During his brilliantly run campaign of 2008, Barack Obama electrified the world with vague promises of change in foreign policy as well as domestic policy. (My take on his campaign strategy can be found here.) Two and a half years later, those promises are ashes. Nowhere is that clearer in foreign policy than in the Arab world.

In contrast to the euphoria surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Arab Revolt of 2011 leaves one with a disquieting sense that we may be standing on the wrong side of history. People power and the promise of democracy worked spectacularly well for the United States when the tyrants in Eastern Europe collapsed twenty years ago, but I think it may be working against us in the Arab world of 2011.

Clearly, the explosion of people power in Tunisia and Egypt caught the U.S. flat footed, and to date, has triggered only embarrassingly incoherent responses by our political leadership. If you doubt this, I urge you to watch this video of Shihab Rattansi's interview of State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley on Al Jazeera, or read this report describing Obama's empty platitudes on about the crisis in Egypt.

The revolt shows signs of spreading. America's "friends" in Tunisia and Lebanon have already fallen to democratic pressures; as I write this, Hosni Mubarak teeters on the brink of collapse in Egypt, and there is potential for a collapse in Yemen as well as in the Palestinian Authority.

Are we witnessing a chain reaction, where each collapse begets more collapses? Will the Arab revolt spread to Jordan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere, or will it peter out?

Of course, no one can reliably predict how an ongoing interplay of chance with necessity will unfold over the coming days and months. But a question's unanswerability does not mean one should not think about its ramifications.

Many of the problems are the same from country to country: grossly unequal distributions of income and conspicuous consumption by rich elites; masses of undereducated poor; high unemployment, especially among the young (including college graduates); rising food prices; corrupt autocracy, official nepotism etc. The forces for a spreading revolt are in place across the region and will not go away, even if tyrants like Mubarak manage to retain their grips on power in the short term.

Mr. Obama did not create the forces driving the Arab revolt. Indeed, the seeds were planted long ago, when myopic Cold War foreign policies began to oppose the democratic/nationalist aspirations of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt in the early 1950s, and when we began to prop up reactionary regimes in the oil states, while winking at Israel's illegal colonization schemes after the 1967 War.

But I do not think President Obama is blameless.

Obama did surprisingly little to fulfill the hopes and dreams he unleashed worldwide during the election of 2008. Moreover, he deliberately magnified them in the Arab world with his 2009 Cairo speech. But coupled with his continuation of America's cynical policies to prop up tyrannical Arab regimes, and particularly his spectacular failure to rein in the illegal Israeli settlements in the so-called Arab-Israeli Peace Process in 2010, Mr. Obama may have inadvertently exacerbated the explosive combination of frustrated expectations and business-as-usual that pressurized the current eruption of resentment, anger, and alienation among the Arab people in 2011.

It is difficult today to appreciate the expectations he unleashed. I witnessed firsthand how his promises of change pumped up Europeans, Turks, and Arabs during 2008.

I am retired and have been living with my wife Alison on a sailboat in the Mediterranean for nine months out of each year, since we crossed the Atlantic in 2005. (FYI, this is a link to her travelblog of our adventures.) During the summer and fall of 2008, we cruised the coasts of southern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. We spent time in harbors and took inland tours, including a side trip into southern Jordan.

I try to chat up our many European sailor friends as well as locals I meet to learn about their conditions, lives, politics, culture, etc. Just about every one I talk to is an 'average joe,' living somewhere along the lower two-thirds of the food chain. Conversations may be in pidgin and sign language, but I generally connect. Despite this microscopic point of view, I am confident Obama's promise electrified people in Europe, Turkey, and the Arab world during his 2008 campaign.

In fact, the impression he created boggled my mind. Once in a small shop in Syria, for example, a man of about 20, asked me in French, Syria's second language, if I was French or English. I responded, pointing to my chest, saying slowly, "Aameerikaa." He broke into a huge grin, put his arm around me, and started chanting "Obama, Obama, Obama," while pumping a "thumbs up" with his other hand, ending with a "high five." While this was an extreme example of the attitude, it was also typical in one sense: as soon as you said you were from the U.S., Europeans, Turks, or Arabs would start talking enthusiastically about Obama.

To be sure, I am only one guy, but I can say without exaggeration, this kind of enthusiasm was exhibited by at least ninety per cent of the people I saw (Israel excepted). Europeans, Turks, and Arabs really wanted Obama to win the election. More importantly, they were excited about the prospect of America moving onto a positive trajectory.

That enthusiasm is now a faded memory, but the frustration between the rising expectations he triggered and a stagnant reality is not.

Consider how far those hopes have fallen: Israel just humiliated President Obama by scuppering his belated attempts to revive the peace process (which even included an offer to buy off the Israelis with 20 more Joint Strike Fighters in return for a settlement freeze of only 90 days). Coming after his 2009 Cairo speech, the humiliation by the Israelis demonstrated either his helplessness or hypocrisy to the Arab world. The publication of the Palestinian Papers delegitimized Mahmoud Abbas and other leaders of the Palestinian Authority by revealing them to be Quislings and the peace process sponsored by the United States to be a fraud. The message could not be clearer: If Arab people want change, they must do it themselves.

So, while Obama did not create the inequalities at the root of discord, I think his empty rhetoric sharply widened the expectation-reality gap that is fueling the Arab Revolt of 2011. (For the record, Obama's candidacy and election made me feel proud to be an American and he is the only politician my wife and I have ever given money to.)

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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