First it was the Arab and Persian nationalist revolts against European colonialism. Next it was the Islamist revolt against the corrupt monarchies and nationalist regimes set up in the nationalist era. Now we have a third wave of revolt across the Middle East that is unprecedented and unpredictable.
Arab nationalism was largely an elite phenomenon that drove and exploited popular sentiments. Islamism is driven by clerics and political ideologues like the Muslim Brotherhood who likewise exploit peoples’ religious beliefs and social resentments. The current third wave of revolt is truly a bottom-up, people driven movement. It’s driven not by nationalism, Islamism or any other 20th Century “ism,” but by a 21st Century socially linked-up mass movement of people who are sick of corruption, the lack of representative government, and being poor.
It is an important fact that these movements cut across national boundaries. All the past movements in the Middle East—nationalist and Islamist—pretended to be “pan” movements of some kind. But they never caught on because their universal claims were myths, undermined by tribal, religious, and nationalist divisions.
The third wave revolt is different. Despite the unique national and tribal features of each movement, it is united by the same emotional revulsion to the ruin and corruption created by the first two waves of revolution in the Middle East. The people of Libya are no less disgusted with Qadhafi than the people of Iran are with Ahmadinejad. One may be largely Sunni Arabs and the other Shiite Persians, but both are utterly finished with the ideologies, pretentions, and results of the Middle East’s first two failed revolutions.
A tale-tell sign this is happening is that al-Qaeda is utterly sidelined. Its leaders are actually horrified by this outbreak of demands for democracy and freedom, since they are utterly against them. While the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is trying to figure out how to take advantage of this new opening, even they are keeping their Islamist goals shrouded. The time for Islamists revolutions, which began with Iran in the 1970s, may be finally ending in the Middle East. Of course, like all revolutions, there will be backlashes and in some instances, Islamists may come to power. We have to watch out for that.
The new Middle East revolution has taken the Obama administration completely by surprise, and for good reason: Their whole approach to the Middle East is thoroughly outdated and irrelevant. Obama’s “engagement” strategy toward the “Islamic world” is irrelevant to the Middle East. It completely misses the point, which is the peoples’ demand for freedom and better standards of living. All it seems to do is to cause Obama to launch denunciations with dizzying speed when it is a pro-American dictator like Egypt’s Mubarak, but to delay for days in saying a word when it’s an anti-American thug like Libya’s Qadhafi and Iran’s Ahmadinejad.
Everything the Obama administration thinks is important in the Middle East—from the Arab-Israeli talks to Obama’s idea that we need only prove we don’t hate Islam—are completely beside the point. Obama’s weak responses are not caused by wise caution, but by cluelessness. His world view is stuck in a past where people actually believed if only America humbled itself sufficiently, and Israel stopped provoking Palestinians with things like building settlements, peace would break out and the people of the Middle East would live happily ever after.
We are in a totally new, unpredictable, and historic phase in the Middle East. No one—particularly Barack Obama—knows exactly where it is heading. However, we had better get our objectives and strategy clear very quickly.
The vacillation has got to end. If we find Qadhafi’s suppression of the revolt unacceptable, we need to do more than “monitor,” “coordinate,” and “consult.” If we want to see the Egyptian revolution turn out well, we need to be more forceful in talking with the army there about how to proceed with elections and reform the economy. If we find Ahmadinejad’s behavior unacceptable, we need to consider options more forceful than talking with “multilateral institutions.”
Above all, the administration needs to wake up and realize that it’s facing a new world. As Elliott Abrams noted, when Amre Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, is more forceful in denouncing human rights violations in the Middle East than the American President, you know you are more than a few steps behind history.