Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Hope's last chance?

Guest post by Ali Ezzatyar 

Ali Ezzatyar is a journalist and American attorney practising in Paris, France.

Ed. note: This is Ali's fourth guest post at The Reaction. Last month, he wrote on dictatorship in Tunisia and Egypt and on the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. In January 2010, he co-wrote a post on Iran with Bryan Tollin. On the situation in Egypt, he was recently quoted by Robert Fisk at The Independent. -- MJWS)


Comparisons to Ceausescu, while initially pessimistic, could turn out to be understated. Qaddafi is digging in and Libya is moving closer to what may be a prolonged and bloody struggle for the country's future. The international community and the United States in particular continue to wonder what role they should play in helping the good guys win.

Surely, it would have been difficult for any U.S. president in 2011 to seriously consider intervention in Libya. But on the eve of his election, one would have thought that Barack Obama was the exception. Promising a break from the past with the Muslim world, the usual suspicion and presumption of ill-intent that followed a U.S. president to the Middle East was tabled in Obama's case. But a combination of unfulfilled promises has relegated him to a class of leaders who must tread with extreme caution in Libya; still, he continues to have a rare opportunity that he should exploit.

He came to power partially on the perception that his unique persona and experience, and the policies and goodwill that would emanate therefrom, could reverse the Bush-era suspicion harnessed towards America almost everywhere in the world. Obama's domestic and international behavior on most everything Middle East, though, has been a disappointment.

Whatever the reality may be, his policy thus far in Iraq and Afghanistan is mostly seen as a continuation of an unpopular status quo. Everyone, including Israel, is complaining about his lack of coherence. On certain domestic issues that are especially important to increasingly well-connected followers abroad, he has again failed to live up to expectations. He signed an extension to the Patriot Act without reforming its most controversial portions. Just this week, he also ordered trials at Guantanamo Bay to resume, casting his promise to immediately close the prison even further into oblivion.

Miraculously, though, with the wave of unrest in North Africa and the Middle East, Obama's foreign policy credentials in the region have been partially revived. In January, American intervention directly lead to Ben-Ali fleeing Tunisia. The story is similarly positive in Egypt, as President Obama's personal conversations with Mubarak in the days leading up to his departure were historically unprecedented in the scope of their rebuke and insistence; the State Department is even rumored to have been very critical (if not threatening) in Bahrain, where the U.S. has a military base, during "consultations" on the paths forward for the king.

From what can be gauged of the region's opinion of how things have been handled thus far, the reaction is overwhelmingly positive. No burning American flags or effigies of Obama; rather, the U.S. is appearing to come out on the right side of events, without having dictated the results of a crucial, strategic Arab nation's political future.

Among disappointment and positive surprise, Libya, then, is a sort of tie-breaker. Obama needs to be the galvanizing force that ensures the world, and not just the U.S., stands on the side of Libya's people. This should include support for a U.N.- or NATO-led no-fly zone to prevent the strafing of civilians, more humanitarian aid to Libyan refugees, and strong diplomatic support for the Libyan people. But further intervention, such as tactical support for Libyan rebels, should also be considered. At this juncture in history, such intervention is unlikely to engender a negative perception, even if the rebels lose. Consider, furthermore, what all of the parties have to gain.

Through the popular, secular uprisings that are spreading through the region, al Qaeda and terrorism are being dealt a crucial blow that billions of dollars and thousands of American lives in Iraq and Afghanistan have yet to accomplish. But Obama must note that the clock is ticking and the jury is still out. Compared to the potential cost of inaction, decisiveness in Libya is simply crucial. Over the course of the next year, a partial reversal of decades of negative U.S. perception could instigate the new era of mutual respect and interest that Obama spoke about in his June 2009 speech in Cairo. That event would mean, among other things, a fundamental blow to extremists everywhere in the region and a huge boon America for decades to come.

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