(This post was edited after creation to correct the first name of Ms. Rubin from the Post).
Jennifer Rubin, a conservative commentator who writes the "Right Turn" blog for the Washington Post has an extended set of musings on Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution today, in which she criticizes Hillary Clinton for a "wishy-washy" statement in support of the nation's protesters and advises President Obama to push the region to give its people a real political voice.
Obama should adopt "concrete polices that can assist democracy advocates not only in Tunisia, but in Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere. If Obama wants to do some more productive "Muslim Outreach," he should stop trying to ingratiate himself with despotic leaders and show that America is, and will continue to be, on the side of those yearning for freedom," she writes.
The problem has always been what concrete action Obama, or any American president, should take as they seek to balance America's often competing interests in the region. Sacrifice intelligence sharing with Egypt or Yemen in exchange for a principled stand and cutting off military aid? Demand fair elections that might well deliver political forces hostile to the US agenda in the region into power?
And in the specific case of Tunisia, the fact that the uprising that drove President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was both spontaneous and entirely local, has been one of its great assets in the eyes of activists that would like to emulate the Jasmine Revolution in places like Egypt or Algeria. There's an argument to be made that the US should express support for democratic change in Tunisia, but avoid getting in the way of a revolution it's had nothing to do with so far and whose ultimate outcomes remain unguessable. (Kristen Chick, the Monitor's correspondent in Tunis, writes this afternoon that many protesters are vowing to resist an interim government that is packed full of Ben Ali's erstwhile underlings.)
One question in Ms. Rubin's column does have a clear answer however. "How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia?" she asks.
Having covered Iraq and Egypt full time between 2003-2008, and having explored the question of whether the US invasion of Iraq would spur regional political change at length with academics, politicians, and average folks in and out of the region over a period of years (and talked to people in touch with current events in Tunisia the past few days) the answer to her question is clear: "Little to nothing."
The sectarian bloodletting in Iraq, the insurgency, and the US role in combating it claimed tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, and Iraq remains unstable today. The regional view of the Iraq war was and is overwhelmingly negative, the model of Iraq something to be avoided at all costs. Before I read Rubin's piece earlier today, Simon Hawkins, an anthropology professor at Franklin and Marshall, was kind enough to chat with me about Tunisian politics and history.
Hawkins, whose dissertation was about Tunisia, has been coming and going from the country since the late 1980s. He recounted (unprompted) how the word "democracy" had been given a bad name among many of the Tunisian youth (the same sorts who led the uprising against Ben Ali) because of the Iraq experience, "That's democracy," a group of Tunisian youths said to him in 2006 of Iraq. "No thanks."
The Obama Administration's policies towards the Arab world, largely focused on counterterrorism cooperation and avoiding pushing hard for political reform in autocracies like Egypt, are in fact an almost straight continuation of President Bush's approach, particularly in his second term. It's true that Bush made a ringing call for freedom in the Middle East a centerpiece of his inaugural address, but soon came up against the hard reality that close regional allies like Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia weren't much interested in tolerating challenges to their rule.
After the Muslim Brotherhood tripled its share in Egypt's parliament in one of the fairest (but still fraud marred) Egyptian elections in decades and the Islamist group Hamas swept free and fair Palestinian elections in 2006, the US took a big step back from Arab democracy promotion. That's a situation that persists today.