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Lessons From Tunisia

By / 1.21.2011

With Tunisia calming down, it is worth reflecting on what the events might mean for us here in the good ol’ US of A.

The first point is that the Obama administration struck precisely the right balance between offering encouragement to the protesters and avoiding interfering in Tunisian internal matters. It is not quite true, as Andrew Sullivan implies, that Obama said nothing about the upheaval. The President released a statement saying he applauds Tunisians’ strength and dignity in standing up to corruption, an important comment that showed that America would not block the will of the Tunisian people. Nationalism is a powerful force in the modern world, and opposing it in now Tunisia would be a disastrous decision.

But neither is it true that the administration inserted itself into the equation, the way Abe Greenwald and others wanted it to. The Obama-ites kept their profile deliberately low, wary of making American support the issue that could be blamed for fomenting the revolution in a part of the world deeply suspicious of U.S. intervention. Unlike Greenwald et al., the administration understands that Tunisians hardly need the assent of an American president before bravely taking, or continuing, action. If anything, Tunisians would be wary of interference from a U.S. president that had praised the strong relations between the nations.

Second, the fact that America let an Arab dictator it supported fall will not go unnoticed. One of Al Qaeda’s major grievances with the U.S. is that America supports autocratic, corrupt, “un-Islamic” regimes like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. In the 1990s, senior Al Qaeda members, including Osama bin Laden, became (wrongly) convinced that it was U.S. power that was allowing these regimes to remain in power. As scholar Fawaz A. Gerges writes in his essential book The Far Enemy, bin Laden “considered Saudi Arabia an occupied country and its regime incapable of forcing the Americans out.” Gerges continues: “[H]e declared war on the United States, not on Saudi Arabia, because, as he told his cohorts, once the United States is expelled from the area, its local clients would fall like ripened fruits.” For Al Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri the country in question was Egypt, but the logic was the same. The “near enemy” was propped up by “the far enemy,” America.

It will therefore be of great interest to Arabs and Muslims—and hardly just Al-Qaeda—that in fact America does not unconditionally support local despots. Should regime opponents emerge that are not inimical to American interests, the U.S. will not eternally stand in their way.

The real question is what lesson will be taken away from this. Will it be that America is in fact not behind the region’s many woes, that the U.S. is not the far enemy? Or rather, conversely, will it be that the U.S. will support tyrants until the Arab people rise up and cast them off? The two are not mutually exclusive, of course. One can imagine both becoming internalized by Middle Easterners in the coming days.