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January 13, 2011

When Pro-Western Regimes Fall: What Should the U.S. Do?
Posted by Shadi Hamid

This is the second in a series of posts on the ongoing Tunisian uprising. You can read the first here

One month ago, Tunisia seemed quiet, stable. Quiet and stable is generally what Western governments like to see in the Middle East. But Tunisia may be on the brink of the first genuine Arab revolution in recent memory. Talk of revolution tends to get US policymakers jittery, as it should. There is a lot at stake here. If Tunisia falls, it will likely embolden the opposition to pro-American regimes throughout the region. It already has, with solidarity rallies in a number of capitals and, more recently, a sort of awed fascination that what last month seemed impossible is, as we speak, happening. If change is going to happen, it's probably going to happen. There's only so much the US can do now that the ball has been rolling, with increasing speed, for 3 weeks (or depending on how you look at it more than 30 years). But it still can do something. And that something may make the difference in a delicate situation. 

Some might argue that this is not about America but about Tunisians fighting for Tunisia. Accordingly, Obama and anyone else should just stay out of it. But the notion of democratic transitions as organic, homegrown – a post-Bush platitude – while technically true, is also misleading. What we know about democratic transitions suggests that Western support – in this case, the lack of it – can prove decisive. In their new book, noted political scientists Steve Levitsky and Lucan Way provide extensive empirical support to what many have long argued. They write, “It was an externally driven shift in the cost of suppression, not changes in domestic conditions, that contributed most centrally to the demise of authoritarianism in the 1980s and 1990s.” 

The US may very well have limited leverage in Tunisia. But France and other EU nations have close relations with the Ben Ali regime. Tunisia depends on Europe for trade and tourism. So, first of all, the U.S. should be coordinating with its European allies. Maybe this wasn't so important yesterday. But now it is, and so it should call for serious, determined action on the part of the international community. 

A phone call to President Ben Ali might be worth considering. Preferably tonight. Phone calls from American presidents to Arab autocrats do sometimes work, as the famed Bush-Mubarak call in 2005 did. What should Obama say? That, while the U.S. understands the security concerns involved, the U.S. will not tolerate the police/military shooting into crowds. And that any excessive loss of life will permanent damage Tunisia's relations with the West. For starters, the US could withdraw its ambassador in protest of mass killing (already around 50 are reported dead). 

But some of this isn't about actual leverage, but optics. In the Arab world, perceptions sometimes matter more than reality. Protestors, after all, act not according some objective reality but to reality as they perceive it, in the moment. Here, the colored revolutions are instructive. 

During Ukraine’s second round of elections in November 2004, President Bush sent Senator Richard Lugar as his special envoy. Lugar issued a forceful statement condemning President Leonid Kuchma’s government for election fraud. Soon after, Secretary of State Colin Powell refused to recognize the results and warned that “if the Ukrainian government does not act immediately and responsibly, there will be consequences for our relationship, for Ukraine’s hopes for a Euro-Atlantic integration, and for individuals responsible for perpetrating fraud.” The protestors in Maidan Square applauded when the Powell’s statement was read. Meanwhile, Lech Walesa, Poland’s first democratically elected president, assured the crowd that the West was on their side. 

The West would be well-advised to show that, while it may not necessarily be on the side of the protestors (somewhat incredibly, Hillary Clinton already said the US won't take sides - talk about pre-emption), it will vigorously support their right to protest, assembly, and that it will not stand by while those fighting for freedom are shot to death. The protestors, who are, in fact, risking their lives, need to know that the world is watching. And that the world cares. This, presumably, is US policy, or maybe it used to be US policy. I'm not entirely sure. I do know, however, that President Bush said the following in his 2003 speech to the National Endowment for Democracy: "Militarism and rule by the capricious and corrupt are the relics of a passing era. We will stand with these oppressed peoples until the day of their freedom finally arrives.” I suppose this is the time to stand? 

Of course, when Bush said this he put himself in a difficult position. How does one go about supporting both a regime and its opposition simultaneously? How does one take sides in such a fight? Morally speaking, there is a right side and a wrong side. Practically speaking, Ben Ali, however brutal, has been an "ally" for a considerable amount of time. This is why US policy in the Arab world has always struck me as fundamentally untenable in the long-run. Autocracies, to my knowledge, do not last forever. But we never took even preliminary steps of distancing ourselves from them, to prepare ourselves for the eventuality that they might fall. So now when tens of thousands of Arabs all across the region are stating, with unmistakable clarity, that they will no longer accept the authoritarian status quo, they are forcing us to take sides, testing our so-called "moral clarity." What they are really doing, I suspect, is forcing us to fall on the wrong side of history. This is not a good place to be. 


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