In these early days of the Arab revolt, President Obama and his administration, already busy with other wars, are struggling for clarity. At a time when policy makers are wrestling with what might be called, in a nod to the president, the fierce incoherence of now, the administration has to bring about the marginalization of anti-modern, anti-Western, Islamist-oriented political parties, while not seeming to be working toward that goal. It has to continually decide which governments of the Middle East deserve the support of the United States and which deserve abandonment. This question points up a core contradiction of the moment: at the same time America is working for permanent and dramatic democratic change in certain republics of the Middle East, it has, 235 years after freeing itself from the rule of a despotic king, gone into the monarchy-maintenance business, propping up kings, emirs, and sheikhs who, though they may be as venal as Ben Ali, Qaddafi, and Mubarak, have oil the West needs, and who serve as a counterbalance to the greatest threat facing the U.S. in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Creating an overarching doctrine suitable for the moment is an almost impossible task, particularly during a crisis that demands from American policy makers analytical humility, doctrinal plasticity, and a tolerance for contradiction. Analytical humility is called for because the trajectories of the Middle East’s revolutions are still difficult to discern, and because it is not yet clear that tyranny is, in fact, in permanent eclipse. Doctrinal plasticity, which in a less value-neutral way could be called hypocrisy, is a necessity because, while it is true that President Obama, to the surprise of many, has shown himself to be more of a liberal interventionist than a cold-eyed realist, it is also true that America retains fixed, and vital, interests across the Middle East, interests that have already forced America to side with monarchs over the masses they rule. And a tolerance for contradiction is vital not only because America’s democratically elected government is scrambling to keep monarchs on their thrones, but because people across the Middle East are embracing American ideals—freedom of speech, financial transparency, leaders who are chosen by the people and are accountable to them—while at the same time distancing themselves from America itself, and rejecting American assumptions about what freedom is meant to look like.
As it happened, the day before the pro-hijab demonstration, Hillary Clinton had made a flash visit to Tunis, in order to praise the revolution, meet with the leaders it had brought to power, and listen to rank-and-file citizens, including and especially women, whose place in the world is a main preoccupation of her tenure as secretary of state. Her most public event on this visit took place at a television studio outside Tunis, before an audience of mainly young people, few of whom, judging by appearance, seemed to be traditional Muslims. “One of the reasons I’m so optimistic about Tunisia is because women in Tunisia have played a role in the professional, public, economic life—every aspect of life in Tunisia—since independence,” Clinton told the crowd, which, in the main, greeted her warmly. (Tunisia achieved independence from France in 1956.) “I have met with, by now, I would imagine, many, many hundreds of leaders everywhere. And it is so rare when a leader raises with me the pride he has in the women of his country. I often raise it with them. I’ll say, ‘You can’t really be fully developed if you don’t use the potential of 50 percent of your population.’ The president, the prime minister, and the foreign minister all raised it on their own. And they said, ‘There will be no going back in the democratic revolution of Tunisia for our women; they will be full participants.’”
Clinton’s campaign for women’s enfranchisement is, of course, well known across the world, and even an inadequately briefed prime minister of a small nation (particularly one seeking an increase in American financial aid) would know to preempt Clinton’s exhortations by touting his own deeply felt feminism. But it’s also empirically true that Tunisia is an outlier in the Arab world on matters related to women. In Cairo, a woman’s uncovered head has become something of an unusual sight, but in Tunisia it’s the norm. Which is why the pro-hijab demonstration in Tunis gave me whiplash, and which is why I raised it with Clinton when I saw her at her State Department office a few weeks ago. She discussed the issue of hijab-wearing, and all that it signifies, in a measured way. Her main worry, she said, is legislation that would mandate the wearing of the hijab.