Protests in Egypt -- and other apocalyptic changes -- could reset Obama’s agenda

President Obama wanted to focus on job creation. But dramatic unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, and across the Arab world, shaky governments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Lebanon, and potential major developments in China and North Korea mean Mr. Obama's priorities in 2011 may not be ones of his choosing.

President Obama wants to concentrate his time in 2011 on job creation and economic expansion at home. But an extraordinary array of challenges abroad may keep his phone ringing during the wee hours of the night.

The explosion of pro-democracy forces in Tunisia, and the dramatic turn of events in Egypt has changed the political landscape in the Arab world and set a-jangle the nerves of tyrants and dictators from Algeria to Libya, Syria to Yemen, and even the Muslim north of Sudan. Nobody can be sure of the outcome, how it will affect the lives of millions of Muslims, the peace process with Israel, or the strategic interests of the United States.

Dramatic reaction

Nobody could have anticipated such a speedily dramatic reaction to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's prescient warning in Qatar earlier this month that Arab states risked "sinking into the sand" if they did not clean up corruption and quicken their glacial pace of political and economic reform. Now the Obama administration must wrestle with cataclysmic changes of a pace it may not have foreseen, balancing the desire for the advance of democratic principles against concern lest the forces of Islamist extremism prosper.

IN PICTURES: Tunisia riots

It is one of America’s grandest tenets that the freedoms that are the cornerstone of the American reason for being are not quixotic meanderings but basic rights for all mankind. Mr. Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner himself, echoed this when he reasoned with visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao, who has locked up Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner. Mr Hu conceded that “a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights,” a position made abundantly clear by the deletion of these remarks in Chinese media. When China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, visiting the United States last year, supported the concept of free speech in a CNN interview, his remarks were similarly censored in Chinese media.

Doomed regimes and ideologies

Though repressive regimes and ideologies may not tumble like falling dominoes in the Arab world or lingering communist-run states like China, history suggests that they are doomed. The explosion of modern technology, whereby protesters in the millions can coordinate through cellphones, e-mail, andTwitter and Facebook, guarantees it. What succeeds such yet-to-be-liberated states may not be democracy as Americans know it, but it will be the freedom to which all men and women aspire – even if they have never known it.

Apocalyptic changes could confront Obama in the Arab world or China (which could undergo serious inflationary economic problems in the face of rising workers’ expectations, let alone a change in communist leadership).

Governments are shaky in Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Lebanon is in political flux.

Poverty-stricken southern Sudan, freed of its Khartoum yoke, enters nationhood in an area of Africa that Al Qaeda seeks to exploit.

North Korea must be persuaded of the benefits of becoming a civil and non-threatening nation. Iran, which seeks dominance over the Arab region, and questions Israel’s right to exist, must be deterred from developing nuclear weaponry.

Cuba appears on the brink of post-Castro transition, the ultimate character of which is yet unclear.

Deft diplomacy

In short, 2011 could be a year of substantial global change.

China may have become a major economic power, and is an emerging military power, with the ability to project power far beyond its borders, but US leadership, reaction, and involvement in such global change remains paramount.

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Deft diplomacy will be required of Obama and Secretary Clinton.

After the upheaval in Tunisia, President Obama issued a message of support for the protesting demonstrators. In the case of Egypt, his phone call to President Mubarak was probably more nuanced between the need for reform and concern lest Islamist extremist forces take advantage of the situation.

Domestic politics may be engrossing for Obama in this preelection campaign year. But he had better be ready for those nighttime calls from capitals around the globe.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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