Obama Is Failing the Challenge of the Middle East Protests

Too often, America tends to think of the Arab world as monolithic.

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No one can really say whether the recent burst of democratic activism in the Middle East is the result of the Bush Doctrine or not.

It is certainly true that things in Iraq have improved thanks to the U.S. led international intervention against Saddam Hussein. Free elections have been held several times and democratic institutions are clearly taking root. For all that, though, the political system will remain fragile for some time to come as the Iraqi people work through the transformation from despotic dictatorship to democracy. [Check out editorial cartoons about the Middle East uprisings.]

But the rest of the Middle East is not Iraq. Too often, America tends to think of the Arab world as monolithic, assuming there is little difference between Syria and Iran, Egypt and Bahrain, the U.A.E. and Algeria. In fact, the differences are profound and, where the United States is concerned, meaningful.

What this means is that the nascent so-called democratic revolutions may not be all that they seem to be or what we would like to think they are. In Bahrain, for example, the recent demonstrations against the king and his government are likely the product of meddling by Iran. It has democratic institutions. Women can vote and sit in in its parliament and hold senior positions in government--which is far from the norm in that part of the world. It is a constitutional monarchy that respects the rights of political and ethnic minorities and a robust economy that includes respect for property rights. [See photos of the protests in the Middle East.]

By western standards, Bahrain is fairly advanced--in contrast to places like Libya, which has suffered under the autocratic rule of Muammar Qadhafi for several generations. Yet Libya too has been the scene of protests, led by those who ostensibly want to bring to the country the same kind of democratic institutions that exist in Bahrain. [See photos of unrest in Libya.]

The challenge for the United States, one that the Obama administration is currently failing to meet, is to understand the nature of these protest movements in order to determine whether they are truly democrats--with a small “D”--or whether they are pawns of Iran or al Qaeda that wish only to add to the number of anti-American states around the world. [See a slide show of 6 vulnerable terrorist targets.]

It will be of little good to anyone to see Qadhafi toppled only to be replaced by a regime that acts in lockstep with the wishes of the Mullahs in Tehran.  Likewise it would be foolish to withhold support from emerging democracies like Bahrain because we fail to understand the true intent of the protest movements that have recently appeared. Being able to tell the difference requires leadership, something that of late has been lacking in U.S. foreign policy.

  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East protests.
  • See photos of protests in the Middle East.
  • See a slide show of 15 post-Cold War uprisings.