President Obama aptly stated that the U.S. faces a crossroads as a global leader today, as it once did during the Cold War when the Soviets launched a satellite named Sputnik to the moon before the U.S. even imagined such a feat. However, there is a far more important moment from Cold War history repeating itself today and presenting the U.S. with the chance to reclaim its position as a bastion for democracy. Arab leaders have stated that the protests in Tunisia and Egypt are equivocal to the Berlin Wall falling, as the people have toppled their authoritarian rulers. While the U.S. rose to economic and ideological supremacy after the symbolic defeat of the Soviets at the Berlin Wall, the Obama Administration does not see history repeating itself. By attempting to wait out the protests and calling for “reform,” the Obama Administration is implicitly supporting the illegitimate autocratic rule of Egyptian President Mubarak, and is miserably failing this make-or-break challenge.
Obama explained that when U.S. leaders during the Cold War witnessed their Soviet counterparts landing a satellite on the moon, they realized their inadequacy and the impact it would have on the future of the U.S. economy. Thus, military and civilian branches worked tirelessly and invested billions in technological research and education. This may not have defeated the Soviets, but it certainly strengthened the U.S. empire. And while the Soviet Union presented a threat to U.S. economic primacy, they also posed an ideological threat with the creation of totalitarian states that limited the freedom of people across Europe.
The Berlin Wall was part of the overall strategy by Soviet leaders to create a physical barrier between the belt of Soviet regimes and the rest of the world in order to limit dissent and the freedom of information. The Berlin Wall itself divided the city of Berlin between the American-controlled Western block and the Soviet East. It was destroyed by protestors from the East who no longer wished to live under a totalitarian regime. For many in the Arab world, watching the people of Egypt taking to the streets elicits the same feeling of elation and hope felt by Americans who watched the fall of the Berlin Wall.
While we gave our full-throated support to the protestors who overthrew their repressive Soviet rulers when it served our interests, liberals and conservatives alike in the U.S. are now unwilling to award the same support for Egyptians. President Obama has claimed that he recommended domestic changes to President Mubarak and more recently called on the dictator to respond to the calls of ‘reform’ by his people. However, just the East Germans were not protesting and risking their lives to ‘reform’ their oppressive system, the Egyptians are calling for a revolution and an ousting of their dictator, not a change in his cabinet.
So one must ask why the U.S. is not realizing the opportunity to aid the rise of a new democratic regime in the Middle East, under the leadership of a President who once campaigned on changing the world and is now speaking of the Sputnik Moment. One reason is that the U.S. would not want to support the protestors only to find out that Mubarak will remain in power and become embittered towards the U.S. However, the U.S. should realize that Mubarak’s time in office is limited; whether one looks at the massive civilian uprisings, the burning of Mubarak’s party headquarters, or the implicit, if not out-right, support of the military for the protests.
Perhaps American policy-makers fear that this revolution could empower Islamist leaders who would have an enmity to the U.S. and its ally, Israel. However, such a presumption could become self-fulfilling prophesy if the U.S. is not vocal in supporting those progressive elements in the revolution who wish to work with the international community and create a just democratic rule. By maintaining a hands-off approach to all opposition groups, the U.S. will encourage those in the movement to gravitate towards more militant elements rather than the progressive ones. If, for example, in Egypt there is a militant Islamist party and a socialist party, but both are considered persona-non-grata by the U.S., then individuals may follow the adage ‘might over right’ and flock to the militant groups.
Yet, the reason why the U.S. has not recognizing calls for regime change in the face of a thirty year dictatorship in Egypt is because the U.S., like the Soviets, wishes to continue to have the support of dictators around the world, especially in the Middle East. The Saudi King has not only given refuge to the deposed dictator of Tunisia, Ben Ali, but also derided the Egyptian protestors calling them “infiltrators.” This explains why the U.S. is unwilling to give its full support for revolution in Egypt, because it does not want to offend its Mid-East benefactor, who should fear his own people as the winds of change sweep the Middle East.
The uprising in Tunisia and Egypt should give hope to those living under oppressive regimes across the world; that a movement for change can come without being led by religious zealots or militants. And while there is much to be said for U.S. moderation in extreme circumstances, President Obama needs to read the writings on the wall which signal a positive, but game-changing transformation of the region.
President Ronald Reagan, a hero of Obama, famously said “Mr. Gorbochev, tear down this wall,” at a rally near the Berlin Wall. This solidified the future of the U.S. as a world leader and protector of democracies across the globe. President Obama has realized his economic Sputnik Moment, but should look at the revolutions in the Middle East as reminiscent of the breaking of the Berlin Wall. These movements will produce the next leaders of the Middle East, and it is up to Obama to decide what role the U.S. will play in this new era. He must decide whether the U.S. should continue to support totalitarian regimes that oppress their people even when a new dawn is spreading the light of freedom to the dark corners of the globe’s dictatorships.