Tunisia: How the US got it wrong

The events in Tunisia again show how US foreign policy in the Middle East fails to fully understand the region.

Recently in Doha, Secretary of State Clinton spoke of regimes whose “foundations are sinking into the sand” and who will disappear unless “reform” occurs. Ironically, the same regimes who have been historically backed by the US [EPA]

One sign read “Game Over”. But in fact, the game has barely started.

The Facebook generation has taken to the streets and the “Jasmin Revolt” has become a revolution, at least as of the time of writing. And the flight of former President Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia is inspiring people across the Arab world to take to the streets and warn their own sclerotic and autocratic leaders that they could soon face a similar fate.

As the French paper Le Monde described it, scenes that were “unimaginable only days ago” are now occurring with dizzying speed. Already, in Egypt, Egyptians celebrate and show solidarity over Tunisia’s collapse, chanting “Kefaya” and “We are next, we are next, Ben Ali tell Mubarak he is next.” Protests in Algeria and Jordan could easily expand thanks to the inspiration of the tens of thousands of Tunisians, young and old, working and middle class, who toppled one of the world’s most entrenched dictators. Arab bloggers are hailing what has happened in Tunisia as “the African revolution commencing… the global anti-capitalist revolution.”


The birth of a human nationalism?

Around the turn of the new millennium, as the Arab world engaged in an intense debate over the nature of the emerging globalised system, one critic in the newspaper al-Nahar declared that an “inhuman globalisation” has been imposed on the Arab world when its peoples have yet even to be allowed to develop a “human” nationalism. Such a dynamic well describes the history of Tunisia, and most other countries in the Arab/Muslim world as well.

And so, if the people of Tunisia are lucky, they are in the midst of midwifing the Arab world’s first human nationalism, taking control of their politics, economy and identity away from foreign interests and local elites alike in a manner that has not been seen in more than half a century.


But the way is still extremely treacherous. As a member of the Tajdid opposition party told the Guardian, “Totalitarianism and despotism aren’t dead. The state is still polluted by that political system, the ancient regime and its symbols which have been in place for 55 years.”

Indeed, the problem with most post-colonial nationalisms – whether that of the first generation of independence leaders or of the leaders who replaced (often by overthrowing) them – is precisely that they have always remained infected with the virus of greed, corruption and violence so entrenched by decades of European colonial rule. Tunisia’s nascent revolution will only succeed if it can finally repair the damage caused by French rule and the post-independence regime that in so many ways continued to serve European and American – rather than Tunisian – interests.

A region’s tipping point

The stakes could not be higher. The “Tunisian Scenario” could lead either to a greater democratic opening across the Arab world, or it could lead to the situation in Algeria in the early 1990s, where democratisation was abruptly halted and the country plunged into civil war when it seemed that an Islamist government might come to power. We can be sure that leaders across the Arab world are busy planning how to stymie any attempts by their people to emulate the actions of Tunisia’s brave citizenry. But at this moment of such great historical consequence what is the US doing about the situation?

The timing couldn’t have been more fortuitous, as Secretary of State Clinton was in the Middle East meeting with Arab political and civil society leaders at the moment events took their fateful turn. Yet when asked directly about the protests the day before Ben Ali fled her answer said volumes about the mentality of the Obama administration and the larger US and European foreign policy establishments to the unfolding situation.

“We can’t take sides.”


A more tone deaf response would have been hard to imagine. This was a moment when the Obama administration could have seized the reins of history and helped usher in a new era in the Arab/Muslim world world. In so doing it could have done more to defeat the forces of extremism than a million soldiers in AfPak and even more drone strikes could ever hope to accomplish. And Mrs. Clinton declared America’s attention to remain on the sideline.

Obama’s Reagan moment

Can we imagine that President Reagan, for whom Obama has declared his admiration, refusing to take sides as young people began dismantling the Iron Curtain? Indeed, even when freedom seemed a distant dream, Reagan went to Berlin and challenged Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”


It’s not as if the Obama administration doesn’t understand what kind of regime it was dealing with in Tunisia. As the now infamous WikiLeaks cable from the US Ambassador in Tunis to his superiors in Washington made clear, “By many measures, Tunisia should be a close US ally. But it is not.” Why? “The problem is clear: Tunisia has been ruled by the same president for 22 years.”

Indeed, WikiLeaks did Clinton and Obama’s job: It told the truth, and in doing so was a catalyst for significant change in the country – yet another example of how the release of all those classified documents has helped, rather than harmed, American interests (or at least the interests of the American people, if not its political and economic elite), even if the Obama administration refuses to admit it.

What is clear is that if the massacre in Tuscon last week might have provided Obama with his “Clinton moment”, as he eloquently led the country on the path towards unity and healing, the Jasmin Revolution has handed him his Reagan moment. Obama needs to stop playing catch up to events, lay aside hesitation and throw his support behind radical change in the region, behind young people across the Middle East and North Africa who could topple the regimes who have done more to increase terrorism that Osama bin Laden could dream of accomplishing.


Decades of support despite repression

The US has understood and even welcomed this very dynamic in Tunisia for the last half century. A 1963 Congressional report on “US Foreign Aid to 10 Middle Eastern and African Countries” stated positively about Tunisia that “Tunisia has been known for its internal political stability and unity… This fact, unique in a ME country, can be explained by the existence of an unopposed single-party rule… Under the vigorous leadership of President Bourguiba, Tunisia offers a favourable and stable political climate, progressive in its outlook, in which to bring about economic development. US aid should be continued at the same or higher level,” the report advised.

In recent years the US position has been little different. The Tunisian regime was supported by the United States because it was secular, cooperated on the “War on Terror” and followed, at least on the surface, liberal economic reforms. And European support for Ben Ali was even stronger, with successive French governments openly declaring their preference for stability and cooperation against illegal immigration and the threat of terror to supporting the kind of democratic transformation that would have gone much farther to securing those goals.


During the Bush administration, then Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick rebuffed attempts by local journalists to get him to admit to a double standard in calling for human rights without actually supporting them in countries like Tunisia and Egypt. The Bush administration supported draconian anti-terrorism laws that were clearly used to repress any opposition to the regime.

Today, Clinton declares that in fact the US doesn’t have much power in the region. “We can’t force people to do what we want,” she explained in Doha at the Forum of the Future earlier this week, emphasising reforms that were focused far more on “economic empowerment, rather than political change,” according to the Washington Post. Clinton never even mentioned the word democracy in her prepared remarks, or human rights for that matter.

And while she preached the gospel of reform and civil society, Clinton praised the record of another despotic regime, Bahrain, whose foreign minister participated in the forum with her. This even though the country’s record of censorship and political repression lags little behind Tunisia’s, if at all, as the annual Human Rights Reports of Clinton’s State Department clearly show.


Taking history’s reins

The WikiLeaks cable that by many accounts helped encourage the protests that have now toppled the Ben Ali regime had the virtue of being honest, as it explained that the incredibly deep and endemic corruption up through the very top of a regime that had completely “lost ouch with the Tunisian people” produced an untenable situation.

It’s clear, then, that the US understood the problems plaguing Tunisia, so why didn’t Clinton speak as openly as her ambassador in Tunis? Imagine what support she would have gotten from the people of Tunisia if she only stated what everyone already knew? If at the very least she had, as her ambassador urged in the then classified communique, declared America’s intent to “keep a strong focus on democratic reform and respect for human rights,” words that the US would not utter directly and openly until Ben Ali had fled the country.


The question now is, does Obama have the courage, the “audacity”, to use one of his favourite words, to seize the moment?

Once Ben Ali had fled the country, the President did salute “brave and determined struggle for the universal rights”, applauded “the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people”, and called on the Tunisian government “to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people”.

But unless there is a stick behind this call, there is every reason to believe, as so many Tunisians and other commentators worry, that the country’s corrupt and still powerful elite will find a way to remain entrenched in power once the situation calms down. Indeed, Obama’s call to “maintain calm” is counter productive. While violence is of course deplorable, the worst thing for Tunisians to do would be to remain calm, to tone down their protests and leave the streets.


Now is the time for Tunisians to ensure that the revolution that is just sprouting is not cut off or co-opted. The protests need to continue and even expand until the foundations of the regime are uprooted and other senior officials removed from power and sent into exile as Ben Ali has now been.

What is President Obama going to do if they emulate their colleagues in Iran and ruthlessly suppress further protests? If he and other world leaders don’t lay out the scenario to the Tunisian people and the elites still trying to contain them now, so everyone understands what the United States will do to support the people, what incentive will those seeking to retain power have to take another route?

Crucial next steps


While the United States and the international community should not directly intervene unless the military begins killing or arresting large numbers of people, there are a number of steps Obama could take immediately to ensure that this nascent democratic moment takes root and spreads across the region.

First, the President should not merely urge free and fair elections. He must publicly declare that the United States will not recognise, nor continue security or economic relations, with any government that is not democratically elected through international monitored elections. At the same time, he must freeze any assets of Tunisia’s now ex-leadership and hold them until they can be reclaimed by the Tunisian people.

Second, he should declare that the young people of Tunisia have shown the example for the rest of the Arab world, and offer his support for a “Jasmin Spring” across the Arab world. Obama should demand that every country in the region free all political prisoners, end all forms of censorship and political repression, and fully follow international law in the way they treat their citizens or the people’s under their jurisdictions.

Furthermore, the President should call on every country in the region to move towards free, fair, and internationally monitored elections within a specified time or risk facing a similar cut-off of ties, aid and cooperation. Such demands must be made together with America’s reluctant European allies.

Of course, such a call would apply to Israel as much as to Egypt, to Morocco as well as to Saudi Arabia. There would be one standard for every country from the Atlantic to the Indian ocean, and the US would pledge to stand with all people working to bring real democracy, freedom and development to their peoples and countries and to oppose all governments that stand in their way.

Imagine what would happen to America’s image in the Muslim world if the President took such a stand? Imagine what would happen to al Qaeda’s recruitment levels if he adopted such a policy (in fact, al Qaeda has been equally behind the 8-ball, as it was only Friday that the leaders of the movement’s so-called Maghrebian wing declared their support for the protests in Tunisia and Algeria).

Imagine how hard it would be for so-called “supporters” of Israel to attack the President for finally putting some teeth behind his criticism of Israeli policy (which Clinton in Doha incredulously said the US could do nothing to stop) if he could reply that he was only holding Israel to the same standard as everyone else and that his policies were actually protecting America’s core interests and security?

Sinking in the sand

In Doha, Clinton poetically spoke of regimes whose “foundations are sinking into the sand” and who will, it is assumed, disappear unless “reform” occurs. The reality is that US foreign policy towards the Middle East and larger Muslim world is equally in danger of sinking into the sands if the President and his senior officials are not willing to get ahead of history’s suddenly accelerating curve. It is the US and Europe, as much as the leaders of the region, who in Clinton’s words are in need of “a real vision for that future.”

Clinton was eloquent in her closing remarks at the Forum for the Future, where she declared,

“Let us face honestly that future. Let us discuss openly what needs to be done. Let us use this time to move beyond rhetoric, to put away plans that are timid and gradual, and make a commitment to keep this region moving in the right direction. People are looking for real leadership in the 21st century, and I think it can be provided, and I know that this is the moment to do so.”

She couldn’t be more right, but it will only happen if the United States, and not the Arab world’s aging and autocratic leadership, takes her sage advice.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.