Denver Tunisia(Pictured: Denver protesters.)

It is not just the governments of different Arab countries that are in crisis as the media would have us believe. U.S. and European Middle East Policy is also suffering from the events. For Washington, London, Paris and Berlin, the current upsurge of region-wide protests in the Middle East is something between a setback and a debacle, the extent of which remains to be seen.

And right now the Obama Administration is scrambling to scratch together a policy to keep up with events, that change daily.

Protests that began in Tunisia with the immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, a university graduate reduced to selling fruit and vegetables in Tunisia’s interior city of Sidi Bouzid, have now spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East.

As I write:

  • Demonstrations are taking place for the third consecutive Friday in Jordan demanding the prime minister, Samir Rafai to step down; a slogan emerging from the street is “Rafai go away; prices are on fire and so are the Jordanians.”
  • In Yemen’s capitol, Sana’a, for the second time in a week thousands are protesting against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, demanding an end to his rule of three decades.
  • And in Egypt, the government of Hosni Mubarek has called out the army to quell angry demonstrations that the New York Times describes in a headline as ‘a fury that has smoldered beneath the surface for decades. Building on the unprecedented Tunisian protest movement, Egyptians are calling for Mubarek’s removal from power; they are also opposed to his son taking over the presidency in his stead. Some news reports suggest that already thousands of people have been arrested.
  • In Algeria and Libya protests erupted targeting socio-economic conditions – promises for public housing made a long time ago.
  • There were even protests in Saudi Arabia against the presence of deposed Tunisian president Zine Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi.

Obama rides…and tries to shape the democratic wave

In the past few days, U.S. President Barack Obama has made several statements praising the Tunisian democratic upsurge, including a few sentences in his state of the union message, giving the impression that the protests are in line with calls for greater democratization throughout the region made over the past ten years from different U.S. administrations.

Tonight (Friday, January 28), he continued along these lines making remarks suggesting that the U.S. supports the democratic wave and making mild criticisms of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarek.

But one senses an American malaise and the mood in Washington is far from joyous as this ‘democratic wave’ extends throughout the region. Whatever Obama’s public pronouncements, under the surface, it is not just Middle Eastern geriatric authoritarian regional leaders who are nervous, but policy makers in Washington DC as well.

Tunisia, Egypt, a setback for U.S. foreign policy

While many here in the United States greeted Obama’s blessing of the Tunisian events as evidence of the administration’s backing for democratic change, actually, the Tunisian protests represent nothing short of a setback for U.S. foreign security and economic policy.

His Tunisia remarks could be interpreted as little more than Obama’s Mayaguez speech, a form of ‘damage control’, his attempt to spin economic and political rejection of U.S. policies into some kind of victory. Facing defeat, declare victory and move on as fast as possible. Blame it on our geriatric Middle East allies rather than on policies that emanate from Washington. One notes, to date, very little sense of self criticism of Washington’s partial responsibility for the current mess.

What is it in U.S. foreign policy that is being rejected from Tunis to San’aa that to date the U.S. media tends to skirt?

  • Economically, the whole region is rejecting the results of nearly 30 years of U.S. supported World Bank/IMF structural adjustment programs that have not produced growth but social polarization, growing impoverishment, bankruptcy of domestic economic enterprises and now higher prices for basic goods. It was rather amusing and pathetic to see both Ben Ali in Tunisia and now Mubarek in Egypt offering their people ‘reverse structural adjustment policies’ (re-instituting subsidies on basic foods, government jobs programs) in an effort to retain power.
  • While singing democracy’s song, U.S. policy in the Middle East as in fact supported authoritarian regimes and autocracy, and has done so consistently since World War II. It is only changing gears now, ever so gingerly, due to unprecedented mass pressure from below, that it has always essentially ignored or downplayed.
  • The United States has long opposed all manifestations of Arab Nationalism, which it first mistakenly interpreted as “pro-Communist” and now confuses with radical Islamic fundamentalism.
  • Because its analysis of the crisis in the region is off base – exaggerating the breadth of Islamic fundamentalism – the United States did not see or appreciate either the scope or nature of the crisis until Washington got hit square in the face with it.
  • The United States anticipated an Islamic fundamentalist-led uprising that would call for the institution of shari’a. This Washington was preparing to crush with the aid of the same local allies it is now criticizing and abandoning left and right. Instead it is facing essentially secular movements against high unemployment, inflation, corruption and repression.
  • The United States has ignored, almost completely, or written off as irrelevant those few critical voices here in the United States and elsewhere who ‘saw what was coming’ and now Washington is paying the price.

Real change or makeup on a corpse?

Obama’s support for the democratic upsurge cannot wipe away with yet another fine speech that has no teeth 65 years of a policy that went in the opposite direction and that contributed greatly to the crisis that has exploded in its face.

The path now taken appears to one of damage control. Obama has decided simply to face reality – to ride the democratic wave sweeping the region but at the same time try to maintain U.S. strategic and economic interests in the region. Change might be in the offing, but perhaps the changes can be tailored to suit U.S. policy. That appears to be the approach taken in Tunisia, and it seems also now in Egypt.

But is it supporting the kind of deep-going needed changes that can lead to both greater development and more democracy…or rather is simply an exercise of putting make up on the corpse that has been 65 years of post World War II foreign policy?

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

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