Obama set out to repair America’s relations with Syria and Iran, and gave George W. Bush’s “diplomacy of freedom” a quick burial. “Ideology . . . is so yesterday,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton bluntly proclaimed in April 2009, identifying Bush’s assertive foreign policy as a thing of the past. But as upheaval swept through Iran in the first summer of the Obama presidency, the self-styled bearer of a new American diplomacy ducked for cover.
The Arabs nearby were quick to see that Obama’s cosmopolitanism — the Kenyan father, the years in Indonesia — masked a political man focused on problems at home. The rebels in Tunisia and Egypt did not expect the U.S. cavalry to ride to the rescue. Even when the rescue mission for the Libyans came, it was late, and the push was from Paris and London, not Washington.
2. These are Facebook and Twitter revolutions.
Facebook and Twitter enabled young dissidents to get around entrenched autocracies and communicate with one another. When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Wael Ghonim, the young Google executive who was the face of the revolt in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, what was next after Hosni Mubarak fell, Ghonim replied: “Ask Facebook.” But it was ordinary men and women who sacked the pharaoh.
These rebellions have been fueled by traditional sparks: crowds coming out of mosques after Friday prayers in the embattled cities of Syria; the test of wills between brutal regimes and those brave enough to challenge them; and young people in Daraa, Homs and Hama conquering the culture of fear and taking on despotism.
Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian street vendorwho set himself ablaze in December 2010, didn’t have a Facebook page. He had a sense of righteous anger and despair. We should rein in the technophilia: Internet penetration in the Arab world is still modest.
3. The Obama administration threw Hosni Mubarak under the bus.
The Egyptian president was the author of his own demise. Washington had assumed that Mubarak would ride out the storm. As Egyptians came together to topple the dictatorship, the Obama administration was hobbled by confusion, expressing a presumptuous intimacy with the man while most Egyptians had nothing but contempt for him. Mubarak had long been the pillar of America’s relations with the Arab world. Remember that just a few weeks before he fell, Clinton said that the Egyptian regime was “stable.”
America should not write itself into every story: There are forces in distant nations that we can neither ride nor extinguish. Egypt, a patient land, had given Mubarak three decades. In return, the ruler toyed with his people and belittled them. He sat at the apex of a lawless regime and never designated a legitimate successor. (Even the most obtuse could see that he intended to bequeath power to his pampered son.) He had risen out of the armed forces, and the officer corps came to see that dynastic ambition as a brazen affront. In this Egyptian drama, those at the White House and in Foggy Bottom were mere spectators.