When speaking about the Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond, the language used here in the US is euphoric. Expressions like “nothing will ever be the same again” and “the existing order is being swept away” are common. But when the conversation comes home, the exuberant rhetoric is pushed aside and hard-nosed practicality becomes the order of the day. “The president had no choice,” the pundits said. “He had to veto. Republicans would have pounced on him and the pro-Israel crowd would have made his life miserable.” This is the accepted wisdom.
It is, of course, always easier to discuss what other countries and their leaders must do than it is to face up to the hard realities of what must be done in one’s own backyard. At the same time, though, it is a bit brazen, and even bizarre, that we can be so blind to the stark contradiction between what we advocate for others and what we fail to do for ourselves. But this is what is taking place.
Right now in commentaries the Bush crowd is crowing, “We were right”, finding new justification in their past promotion of democracy — ignoring, of course, the utter hypocrisy of their overall approach to the region. They gave lip-service to democracy, to be sure, but then they led America into two deadly and failed wars (both of which they wrongly projected would usher in democratic change); turned a blind eye as Israel ravaged Palestinians and the Lebanese; and instituted the wide-spread use of profiling, prolonged detentions without due process, and prisoner abuse, all of which they pressured Arab allies to support.
The net result was a roiling of Arab public opinion and a delegitimising of some Arab leaders who had befriended America, making them more vulnerable and less receptive to proceed on the path of reform. Then, after strong electoral performances by hardline religious parties in several countries, the Bush administration, not liking the outcome, shelved their democracy rhetoric.
More disturbing than this irritatingly predictable neo-conservative effort to rewrite history and hijack the Arab uprising is the fact that many liberals can find no more creative response to these Arab uprisings than to become latter-day “neo-cons” themselves.
All this posturing ignores several uncomfortable truths. America’s favourable ratings across the Arab world are back to Bush- era lows and the post-Cairo optimism that America would change its approach to the region has all but evaporated. America, it bears repeating, is not unpopular amongst many Arabs because we have supported their leaders; rather it is some Arab leaders who have become unpopular because they have supported our policies. We were, in a real sense, not in the game, having long ago dealt ourselves out. In their efforts to make change in their own countries, Tunisians and Egyptians weren’t looking to us. This was their movement, not ours.
There is a real danger that in this moment of crisis we will either learn the wrong lessons, or learn no lessons at all. What is required now is to recognise the degree to which our failed policies of the past have alienated Arab public opinion, undercut our stated values, and put at risk those who sought to be our friends.
At a critical moment in the midst of the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King delivered his “Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam”. In this speech he said “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values … A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of our past and present policies.” This challenge is as true today as it was then.
Unless our political leaders can put aside “politics as usual” and end their callous disregard for the suffering of Palestinians; unless leaders are willing to challenge their political fears and do what is right, instead of what is convenient; unless we can stand up against the Islamophobes who threaten to tear apart the fabric of our nation; unless we can restore our commitment to fundamental freedoms and constitutional protections; and unless we can stop ignoring Arab concerns and truly listen to what Arab voices are telling us about their needs and aspirations, we will continue to operate clumsily, and at times brutally, on the wrong side of history.
As Arabs seek change at home, the challenge we face is to question how we can bring real change to America and to the way America deals with the Arab world and its people. This is what Barack Obama promised when he said that he would lead the effort to “change Washington” and, in the process, “change America and change the world”. This is still the change we need. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet.
JAMES ZOGBY is president of the Arab American Institute.