The year 1848 was a year of revolution for the countries of Western Europe. France, Germany, Italy and the Habsburg Empire all experienced revolts for a variety of reasons — rising food prices, new political ideals, economic troubles and nationalism, to name a few — and all of them were brutally crushed.
Several commentators have pointed out similarities between the recent Middle Eastern unrest and the European revolutions of 1848: their popular bases and their roots in deep-seated economic and political repression. But the revolutions of today, with the dizzying blur of information and commentary we get from everywhere from CNN to Twitter, have demanded equally up-to-the-minute responses from our foreign policy makers.
And indeed, recent events in the Middle East have proven nothing short of a full-fledged diplomatic nightmare for the United States. Though the administration greeted the Tunisian popular uprising with approving pro-democratic sentiments, we have had a harder time forming a cohesive response to more recent unrest in Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, Iran, Libya, Morocco and Bahrain.
It started with Secretary Clinton and Vice-President Biden putting their feet in their respective mouths. During the first days of the Egyptian protests, they declared that “the Egyptian government is stable” and that Hosni Mubarak, who employed a secret police force and was known to jail and torture dissidents throughout his 30 years in power, was “not … a dictator.” Reversing course only days later, the administration vaguely called for an “orderly transition” and reforms, followed 48 hours later by an ambiguous declaration that Mubarak’s departure “must begin now” and another ambiguous call for an “orderly transition.”
Our waffling continued — first calling for “concrete steps,” then “a role for Mubarak,” only to pressure him to step down immediately less than a week later. Embarrassingly, the director of the CIA predicted that Mubarak would step down that evening, only for Mubarak to declare on television that he would refuse to do so. Finally, the long-time dictator’s departure was announced the next day.
Even after their bumbling response to the Egyptian uprising, our foreign policy apparatchiks still can’t catch a break. Protests against Yemen’s ruling regime threaten to impede American efforts to fight al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Revolts and protests in Bahrain, Iran and Libya are prompting statement after statement voicing Americans’ commitment to democracy, our disavowal of violence and our confidence, or lack thereof, in one side or another. Accusations of hypocrisy have flown as regimes across the region take sides: Iran, despite brutally crushing its own opposition protests barely a year ago, has praised Egyptians, and the United States has voiced its solidarity with Iranian demonstrators while supporting a monarch in Bahrain (home of our Fifth Fleet) whose repressions within his own country have grown increasingly brutal as security forces have opened fire without provocation on protesters, mourners and reporters.
So what should be the American response to the recent unrest across the Middle East and North Africa? Should we review our aid packages? Should we offer clandestine support for our strategic interests? Should we sabotage government forces, or perhaps arm protesters?
What’s wrong with doing nothing?
It’s quite a novel thought. Presidents from Monroe to Teddy Roosevelt to George W. Bush have put forth doctrines bearing their names and justifying their wars, yet our present course of action is not bound by a strictly defined “Obama Doctrine.” If Egyptians, Bahrainis or the citizens of any other country in the Middle East and North Africa wish to move towards Western democracy, so be it. Obama has held us to no obligation to defend American interests, maintain a sphere of influence or defend the right of people to be free at any costs. In refusing to dictate a doctrine, his administration is free to act pragmatically on a case-by-case basis.
As Press Secretary Jay Carney stated at a Feb. 17 press conference, “We’re not looking to dictate events or outcomes,” that is, to pick winners or losers — a refreshing change. As the revolutionary wave sweeping the Middle East and North Africa continues to swell, it looks our best bet for now is to stay the course of not choosing a course.
Jack Newsham is a freshman in Morse College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.