Cross-posted from Mondoweiss and the Arabist.
That’s right: a Republican is giving Obama more credit than even his own party will for influencing –no, inducing — the “Arab Spring.” MSNBC broke the story, capturing footage of Michele Bachmann, GOP presidential hopeful, saying that:
Just like Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s [who] didn’t have the back of the Shah of Iran, we saw the Shah fall and the rise of the Ayatollah. And we saw the rise and the beginnings of radical jihad which have changed this world and changed this nation.
So too, under Barack Obama, we saw him put a lot of daylight between our relationship with our ally Israel. And when he called on Israel to retreat to its indefensible 1967 borders, don’t think that message wasn’t lost on Israel’s 26 hostile neighbors.
You want to know why we have an Arab Spring? Barack Obama has laid the table for an Arab Spring by demonstrating weakness from the United States of America.
There are just so many things worth commenting on in this speech, like the strawman of Obama calling on Israel “to retreat to its 1967 indefensible borders,” or the fact that Obama’s casus belli “1967 borders” speech postdated popular uprisings in the Arab world by several months, to say nothing of the total historical amnesia surrounding the Iranian Revolution. Khomeini was a dictator, but then, what was the Shah? Oh yes, a dictator, just like the Arab ones Bachmann now bemoans the loss of. These statements aren’t anything we have not heard from Israeli or American officials and pundits before, though.
It’s true that American imperial overreach has helped revolutionaries in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, but this overreach isn’t Obama’s creation. How could a junior senator from Illinois have had a substantial effect on developments even over the past decade? The answer: he didn’t. We are now seeing blowback for decades of support for military dictatorships and monarchies in the Middle East. Indeed, much of the major political upheaval in the region between 2001 and 2010 — Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, the Hamas-Fatah schism, revelations about Iran’s nuclear program, Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, the U.S.-led regime change in Iraq, Operation Cast Lead — all occurred while George W. Bush was squatting in the White House. These events stirred up the Middle East: they emboldened both Islamist movements and Israeli hardliners, forced the U.S.’s Arab allies into awkward positions with their populations (plus factions of their elites), and altered the post-Cold War status quo by creating a political and military vacuum in Iraq.
This is what Bush left Obama, who only came to the White House as Cast Lead was winding down (and, in fact, remained vigorously silent as Israel pounded Gaza for 23 days). Focused on domestic issues, Obama’s administration basically fell into the Arab Spring, for all his Cairo speech did to “change” the tone in the region. Caught unawares by the fragility of their “secular” stalwarts, Washington essentially resigned itself to the overthrow of Presidents Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak when it became clear that their countries’ security apparatuses — whose equipment and paychecks had long depended on U.S. largesse — were positioning themselves to “manage the transitions” in their countries. (Much as the Soviet Union learned from its Warsaw Pact allies in 1989, the U.S. discovered that the security apparatuses of its client states were paper tigers more interested in securing their survival alongside the protesters than alongside their bureaucratic bosses.)
Meanwhile, even as Bachmann gives Obama far too much credit for igniting the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, she doesn’t give him nearly enough credit for trying to stomp them out in Bahrain and Yemen. That’s because she has to overlook Obama’s sterling record in joining hands with the Saudis to assist the Bahraini and Yemeni authorities in clamping down on dissent if she wants her charges to have a sheen of sensibility. Give the man some credit, Michele: he’s no “dhimmi” (as Islamophobes sometimes call him) when it comes to the Persian Gulf. He, or rather, our riot gear andUAVs, are standing up for U.S. interests there day and night. Only in Libya has the Obama Administration taken the initiative — and a controversial one at that.
Bachmann’s response to Israel is also interesting, though certainly not in the way she intended. She condemns him for putting “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel, for emboldening Israel’s enemies (which she defines as every country in the region). “Daylight”: as in Obama actually attempting public criticism of the Israeli policies that have led to increased settlement construction. Daylight: Just like the unremarkable speech he gave a few months ago largely echoing previous administrations’ positions on a two-state solution. But even these moves prompted such a furious response from Netanyahu and Congressional Republicans that former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lost his temper and called Israel “an ungrateful ally.”
Fortunately for Israel, such conservative pressure has put the president back on the straight and narrow path . . . even though, as Bachmann fails to realize (or does, but just doesn’t care), he never strayed from that path.
“Daylight” is indeed the last thing any American alliance in the Middle East can withstand. Bachmann has hit the nail on the head, though it was probably unintentional: if the U.S. gives even an inch regarding its client states’ undemocratic behavior, the people of those states will try to seize a mile from us and our cronies.
Rather than ask why this is the case, though, conservatives are waxing poetic for the days when Pahlavis and Hashemites ran the Middle East. Still, Bachmann, and those echoing her comments, do see democratization in the region quite accurately, at least from their Beltway vantage point — as a threat to U.S. hegemony in the Middle East.
Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.