How Obama Heralded the Arab Spring
With the impending 2012 Presidential Election coming into focus, it is of critical importance to consider one of President Barack Obama’s significant achievements, helping create a global political climate where organic democracy could arise throughout the Islamic World, in what everyone is calling the Arab Spring.
The Arab Spring is an ongoing movement throughout the Muslim and Arab world for democracy, good governance, dignity, human rights and an end to the authoritarian rule that has been commonplace in the region. Although the Arab Spring officially began in Tunisia on December 18, 2010 and subsequently spread to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and other nations, the Arab Spring is intimately connected to that midnight on November 4,2008, when the people of the United States declared their selection of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. The election of Barack Hussein Obama, whose name can be literally translated in Arabic as “Good Blessing Obama” not only embodied change on the national landscape but also on the international scene.
Following the events of September 11, 2001, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, our nation further developed and cultivated a deep seated mistrust and suspicion about the people of the Arab world, their religion, Islam, and the threat ‘they’ posed to America’s safety. As a result, the United States initiated two foreign offensive military campaigns and infringed on domestic rights to privacy, widely referred to as the “War on Terror”. This “War on Terror,” no matter how well intentioned, had the effect of demonizing and dehumanizing over a billion Muslims and hundreds of millions of Arabs around the world, and millions here in the United States. President Bush’s aggressive bomb-first-ask questions-later approach to the “War on Terror” was supported when he was reelected in a highly-contested battle against the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, in 2004. With the reelection of Bush in 2004, it appeared that the American people supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and gave a green light to the global and domestic “War on Terror.” Bush’s reelection further validated the “War on Terror” and delved our world deeper into a climate of fear, cynicism and hostility.
The 2008 presidential campaign in many ways involved a choice over America’s foreign policy direction. Was America going to continue support a president who would aggressively push for the “War on Terror,” or was America going to elect a president who would seek peaceful coexistence with the world, without sacrificing our safety? Well, in early November of 2008, the American people loudly proclaimed an affirmative to the latter.
Almost instantly, the view of America changed around the world. Rhonda Habib, a Jordanian writer, was quoted by the L.A. Times on the impact of the 2008 election, “Obama can make you once again respect the U.S. for its values and democracy and all those things we had forgotten about over the last eight years.” Undoubtedly, a member of an ethnic minority rising to the position of president in arguably the most influential nation on earth, with a lengthy history of domestic racial and ethnic oppression, was truly historic on many fronts. I am certain that millions of people, particularly in the Middle East and the Arab World, outwardly celebrated or privately and cautiously expressed their repressed feelings of hope and optimism about what changes might result from Obama’s election. President Obama began immediately changing the dialogue around the “War on Terror,” he preferred to paint America’s enemies with a much finer paintbrush instead of a one-size-fits-all paint roller.
Once in office and less than a month after his inauguration President Obama began his outreach to the people of the Muslim World. First, Obama granted an interview to Al-Arabiya television; he then delivered a speech directed to the people of Iran. He gave a speech in Ankara, Turkey, and then in June of 2009 he orated an impressive and well received speech in Cairo, Egypt entitled, “A New Beginning.” The international world and the Norwegian Nobel Committee were the first to recognize President Obama’s contribution to the global political climate by awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 stating in a press release, “Obama as a President created a new climate in international politics.” Unfortunately, many at home and abroad challenged his worthiness of this honor. Nonetheless, a year and a half after President Obama’s “A New Beginning Speech”, on January 25th, 2011, Cairo, which had served as the backdrop to Obama’s speech, would command center stage, as the most populous and influential Arab country toppled their authoritarian and undemocratic government, officially confirming the Arab Spring.
The Arab Spring is clearly an organic revolutionary movement that is long-overdue and well-deserved for the millions of people who have suffered under the fallen, falling and soon to fall regimes. President Obama has not claimed and can in no way be made to appear, solely, responsible for the Arab Spring. This credit and acknowledgement must go to the thousands and millions of individuals who risked their lives to challenge their oppression and repression by their governments. That being said, President Obama does deserve a great deal of credit for taking many unpopular and politically risky stances towards the Muslim world even before the Arab Spring. Remember that many opponents of President Obama during the 2008 presidential election falsely and continuously accused him of being a Muslim, playing to the fears that he was going to be more sympathetic with the Muslim world and Middle East. President Obama, weathered those false characterizations of his faith and then did exactly what his opponents feared most, he began reaching out to a part of the world that our previous foreign policies had left feeling alienated, vilified and angry towards the United States.
President Obama was able to develop this inclusive and humanizing approach to the Muslim and Arab World because he himself was the son of a Kenyan, with generations of relatives who practiced Islam. He spent some of his childhood living in Indonesia, the most populous Islamic nation in the world, with his American mother and his Indonesian and Muslim step-father, Lolo Soetoro. These intimate connections between the Muslim world and himself allowed President Obama to see through the crusade like rhetoric against the Muslim and Arab world at a time when many in leadership in America were only adding fuel to the fire.
The indirect, if not direct, correlation between President Obama’s approach to foreign policy and the Arab Spring has conveniently been ignored by many political observers around the world on both the left and the right. The U.S. media has been so caught up in the political turmoil that is Washington D.C. and the economic crisis that they have failed to observe this monumental accomplishment of our 44th President.
Likewise, many international observers who for years have been waiting for meaningful and progressive U.S. involvement towards resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, have been unimpressed with Obama’s tactful and tempered leadership. Many in the Middle East, who are eager for a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, will undoubtedly say Obama has not done enough or taken a hard enough stance against Israel. This may be the case but President Obama has taken a huge step in the right direction by changing the discourse of America’s foreign policy towards the region. President Obama has shown himself to be the best equipped and most astute U.S president on foreign policy in recent memory and at a critical time for our world.
During President Obama’s historic “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo he addressed the previous approach to the Muslim World, explaining that:
“The attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust…I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”
President Obama went on to challenge the regimes of the region: :
There are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.”
President Obama has undoubtedly brought about a significant shift in the global political climate, where vilifying people in the Muslim and Arab world has stopped being viewed as en vogue by the United States government and as a result the people of this region have been able to direct their attention towards the “coercion” they experience at the hands of their own governments. President Obama needs to continually be pressured to do more to address the Arab-Israeli conflict but he also needs to be praised for the change in tone and tenor of America’s foreign policy. More broadly, President Obama has shown the ability to improve the connections between peoples and communities once thought unable to be connected. He has helped connect the youth to the elders, the Islamic and Arab world to the Western world, the Hip-Hop generation to the Civil Rights generation and the political right to the political the left. Maybe President Obama is not the change we wanted, but maybe that has prevented us from seeing that he has brought about some of the change we needed.
 “The Nobel Peace Prize 2009 – Press Release”. Nobelprize.org. 16 Sep 2011 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2009/press.html