In a phone call made by late U.S. President Lyndon Johnson with Senator Richard Russell (in May 1964) and disclosed a few years ago, the President confessed to his interlocutor that the Vietnam War might last longer than expected, especially that there were no signs of solution looming in the horizon. He added that despite all that, the United States must continue the war to prevent the fall of other countries in the hands of the Eastern Bloc, just like “dominoes.” Johnson then admitted that the American people do not care about this war because they do not understand its importance in the long term, adding that his position might affect his popularity, but he was confident that history will do him justice. Johnson said: “…this will be a domino that will kick off a whole list of others. This is why we have to prepare for the worst… I don't think the people of this country know much about Vietnam, and I don't think that they care …”
However, did history do justice to Johnson as he had expected? Maybe President Obama, who officially embarks on his second term this week, should learn from what happened to his predecessor. In fact, history did not do justice to Johnson as he had hoped, but the Vietnam War cast its shadow on all his important work as president. In an opinion poll conducted by “Gallup” about the greatest U.S. presidents, President Johnson came second to last, before President Nixon, who resigned after a humiliating scandal, and this despite everything Johnson tried to accomplish. The efforts he deployed in establishing Civil Rights did not serve him, neither did signing the law ending racial segregation, nor his courage in facing his opponents within the Democratic Party who warned him that his “Great Society” project, which one of its goals was to fight poverty, will break apart the party in favor of the Republicans. In his famous response to those who were skeptical about his project, he said he knows that the stakes are high, and that he might lose the South, but that he will lose these States anyway.
Today, President Obama seems to be in a better position; Even though he has inherited a bad economic legacy from his predecessor, what he has done at the economic reform level, and what he has achieved through the “Health Care” project and many other popular decisions, have granted him a second term without much efforts.
Being the first U.S. president of African Muslim origins and winning the Nobel Peace Prize, obviously mean that he will enter history. Nevertheless, behind this long list of achievements, there is a shy foreign policy, and a poor performance record regarding the international peace and security. Furthermore, some observers believe that Obama's foreign policy in his first term, is merely a downgrade in the performance of this great country.
However, the popular uprisings that have hit a number of Arab capitals in early 2011, surprised the Obama administration; what was later known as “Arab Spring” shocked President Obama and challenged the U.S. policy in the Middle East similarly to Saddam's occupation of Kuwait in 1990.
In his first inaugural speech, President Obama pledged that his country does not want to impose its model on any country; he has benefited from his reputation as being against the war in Iraq, gathering a wide audience outside the United States, and even inside the Middle East that has historically been against the American policies. Back then, the new president was very popular, but all the hopes soon crashed on the “Spring” rock. The U.S. administration had to choose between backing some allied regimes, or supporting the demonstrators in these capitals, who invoked the banners of “democracy,” “human rights,” and “the departure of dictators and their tyranny”... In other words, the Obama administration had to choose between its interests in the Middle East, or the victory of democratic principles.
In Tunisia, Obama chose to support the intifada / Revolution; the U.S. interests were not significantly affected by the departure of Ben Ali, but when the protests’ spark reached Egypt, the U.S. administration was in trouble; Would it throw its allied “pyramid” under the bus – as they say – or stand against the protesters to oblige the two parties – the government and the opposition – to resort to a transition roadmap within the limits of the Constitution? The U.S. administration had diverged opinions; some argued that the loss of the Egyptian street is less harmful than the “spring” instigating a Domino effect that would torment the stability of the region, while the second group argued that the President should stand on the right side of history.
The Administration opted for the second group’s choice during the first four months of 2011, but as soon as the spark reached Libya and Syria, it found itself in trouble; does it continue to support the popular uprisings even if they became armed uprisings, or would it simply stick to the statements, even if the dictator wrecked the country, and destroyed everything?
After the second anniversary of the “Arab Spring,” the Obama administration seems to be less concerned about what is happening to the millions of displaced and deprived citizens in the Syrian cities that turned into haunted towns with thousands of dead children and women, who apparently do not seem to stand on the right side of history according the U.S. administration.
In his first speech about the U.S. policy in the Middle East after the departure of Mubarak, Obama praised the young protesters in the Arab capitals saying that “a new generation has emerged, and their voices are telling us that the change cannot be blocked.” Regarding the young Egyptian man Wael Ghonim, who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in the presidential election, he said: “It is not surprising that one of the leaders of the “Tahrir” Square was a young “Goggle” executive.
It is certain today that those who were elected in Tunisia or Egypt are not among the Facebook, Twitter or even Google generations, and are not necessarily fans of the American democracy. It is also worth mentioning that the Syrian youth today do not have smart phones, but they rather carry rifles and bombs through which they are waging a bloody war.
With the Libyan “Revolution,” the United States wanted to start a new chapter and as a reaction, the terrorists killed its ambassador in a heinous crime.
The Obama administration has tried to distance itself from the natural chaotic consequences of the “spring,” but the result was that the chaos extended and reached Mali and other African lands fell in the hands of radical fundamentalist groups. Gaddafi was a dictator who had blood on his hands, but there is no doubt that al-Qaeda has benefited from the chaos of arms and security that followed his fall.
The American press praised President Georges W. Bush in 2002 for his leadership of the United States after 9/11 attacks, but the war In Iraq has undermined his reputation, though he offered unprecedented aid to Africa. President Clinton regrets what happened to Rwanda, and the failure of his administration in the humanitarian intervention.
The cover of the Economist magazine portrayed Obama looking into a mirror where it was written: “How will history see me?”. It will be interesting to know what President Obama will have to say about the “Arab Spring” after several years from now, and whether he was really on the right side of history or on its margins.
Adel al-Toraifi is the current Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla, the leading Arab magazine. A specialist on Saudi foreign policy, he is recognized as a commentator and participant in televised programs for CNN, NBC, BBC and Al-Arabia TV. Awarded the post-graduate International Conflict Prize 2008 from Kingston University for outstanding work, Mr. al-Toraifi is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Twitter: @altoraifi