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Riding the Revolutionary Wave: America, The Arab Spring, and the Autumn of 1989
Charles J. Sullivan
April 2011
In actuality, the parallels are really quite amazing. Both men came from humble backgrounds and ascended to power as virtual unknowns in times of crises. They both sought to refashion their countries’ respective economies, polities, and roles in the international system by means of implementing policies that had seemingly succeeded in the past as well as experimenting with new ideas altogether. Both men used catchy phrases to label their reformist agendas, campaigned across Europe, and were awarded Nobel Peace Prizes. They both presided over an unpopular war in the same country, in which they sought to extricate their armed forces from in due course. Both men discredited their predecessors, perhaps to such an extent that it proved to be detrimental to society at large. They both commanded a great deal of respect on the world stage and were confronted with managing ecological disasters early in their tenures. Now, both have been presented with the challenge of having to restructure their government’s foreign policy towards a specific region of major geostrategic importance in a short period of time.
Charles J. Sullivan is a PhD candidate in Political Science at The George Washington University. Mr. Sullivan specializes in the politics of the FSU region and has published articles in the Journal of Central Asian Studies (Halk, Watan, Berdymuhammedov! Political Transition and Regime Continuity in Turkmenistan 2010), the Washington Review of Turkish & Eurasian Affairs (Dmitry’s Dilemma: The Resurgence of Insurgent Activities in the North Caucasus 2011), and the Journal of Energy and Development (Pipeline Politics in the Post-Soviet Space: The View from Ashgabat 2011). He has also written a chapter, Dealing with Despotic Regimes: U.S.-Central Asian Relations in the Post-9/11 Era for The Handbook of Central Asian Politics (forthcoming). Mr. Sullivan is a fellow at the Institute for European, Russian & Eurasian Studies.
The purpose of this commentary piece is to highlight that despite the historical gap, U.S. President Barack Obama faces many of the same challenges that former General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev had to contend with while he was in office, primarily within the realm of international relations. In comparing Obama to Gorbachev, I wish to make it clear that these men are not simply ‘two sides of the same coin’. Obama is not a Marxist, Gorbachev was not popularly elected to his aforementioned post, and there is no guarantee that the one currently still in power will suffer the same political fate as the other who was forced to quit his post in late 1991. That said, the similarities in the challenges that befell both of these leaders upon entering office and how they responded are uncanny. What remains to be seen is whether or not Obama will refrain from committing the same mistakes his counterpart made while in office, mistakes which may lead to the current U.S. President’s electoral downfall.
In retrospect, Mikhail Gorbachev came to office in 1985 a youthful energetic figure devoted to resurrecting a stagnating Soviet economy, transforming the political landscape within his own country, and mending fences with the United States of America and the West, all by implementing a ‘revolution from above’ (mainly because the Soviet leader was both willing and able to do so at the time). Hence, Gorbachev sought to experiment with limited market reforms, persuade his fellow Soviet citizens to more actively participate in politics, and engage in what was commonly referred to back then as ‘New Thinking’ on the international scene. To be certain, Gorbachev accomplished some historic feats during his time in office, most notably by relieving the Red Army from waging a seemingly unwinnable war in Afghanistan by signing the 1988 Geneva Accords; encouraging his fellow Soviets to learn the truth about their nightmarish past by promoting Glasnost; and helping bring the arms race under some measure of control by signing a treaty with U.S. President Ronald Reagan to cut the number of Soviet and American nuclear warheads. However, rightly or wrongly, Gorbachev is widely perceived to be the one person who is considered to be the most responsible for ushering in the USSR’s demise. Moreover, the Soviet leader’s much vaunted Perestroika program turned out in the end to be a complete failure, for by the time Gorbachev was forced into early retirement the Soviet economy (characterized by food shortages and a worthless ruble) was in ruins. On the global stage, Gorbachev also chose to let Eastern Europe cast-off its Communist puppet governments in the autumn of 1989 by not resorting to force in Brezhnevian fashion. Upon doing so, Gorbachev was never able to regain his footing. After all, why had the Soviet Union, which paid so dearly for these lands in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), relinquished them without even a whimper, let alone a fight? Shortly thereafter, the embattled Gorbachev found himself to be unable to hold the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics together as the ruling elites of various Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) opted to secede from the CPSU-led unionist governing framework altogether.
Flashing forward, Obama came to office in 2009 a youthful energetic politician devoted to resurrecting the fledgling U.S. economy, transforming the cut-throat nature of American politics, and mending fences with (ironically) Russia as well as much of the rest of the world, primarily because of his predecessor’s penchant for promoting quasi-democratic revolutions in the post-Soviet space through foreign aid and in the Middle East via force. To be certain, Obama can proudly point to some major accomplishments. To date, his administration has succeeded in overhauling the country’s healthcare system and signing a treaty with Russia designed to further decrease both governments’ nuclear weapons caches. For the time being, however, it remains unknown as to whether Obama’s policy towards Afghanistan will ultimately succeed in bringing the decade-long conflict to a peaceful finale. Yet not much can be said about Obama’s economic policies, other than the facts that unemployment remains high, the national debt has ballooned as a result of increased government spending, and few markers indicate that the U.S. economy is about to awaken from its three-year long slumber. Politically, it also appears as if Obama (partially because of the manner in which his administration chose to govern during the first two years of his presidency) has not been able to refashion the competitive nature of American politics while in office. Thus, the U.S. body politic remains deeply divided along partisan lines.
Objectively speaking, one might surmise that Obama may end up like his counterpart, either by being ousted from within his own party (if someone were to challenge him for the Democratic presidential nomination) or forced into admitting defeat (should the Republican presidential candidate win in 2012). That being the case, judging by the condition of the U.S. economy and level of partisanship in Washington, I would guess that America’s role in foreign affairs will be loudly debated in the next election cycle. Coincidentally, the strongest parallel that can be drawn between Obama and Gorbachev exists within the realm of international relations.
As previously stated, both Obama and Gorbachev have been presented with the challenge of having to restructure their government’s foreign policy towards a specific region of major geostrategic importance in a short period of time during their respective tenures in office. Looking back, although many are inclined to believe that Gorbachev simply let Eastern Europe go because he was averse to the idea of using brute force to prevent the changes throughout the region in the autumn of 1989 from taking place, another important factor most likely played a role in his decision-making. In retrospect, in his efforts to revitalize the Soviet body politic, Gorbachev encouraged Soviet citizens to learn the truth about their past which had been robbed from them by the Stalinist regime. Energetically, Gorbachev and the Soviet intelligentsia engaged in a full-frontal assault against the Man of Steel, rightfully discrediting Stalin in the process and posthumously placing him on trial for his crimes against humanity. In doing so, however, Gorbachev discredited the CPSU’s claim to retain control over Eastern Europe, which had been conquered by Stalin in World War II. In the end, Gorbachev found himself with no grounds to stand on as East Europeans across the Eastern Bloc began demanding their freedom.
Presently, as events are spiraling out of control in the Middle East in the midst of the 2011 Arab Spring, the Obama administration appears to be extremely confused and unsure about how to proceed. In the aftermath of the mass uprising in Tunisia which led to the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Obama kept quiet as protestors began to file into Tahrir Square in Cairo. After several weeks of mounting tensions, Obama publicly called upon Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave office. Several days later, the Egyptian military assumed control of the governing apparatus. Thereafter, although the U.S. publicly deplored the use of force by government soldiers against peaceful protestors in Bahrain’s Pearl Square, Obama did not call for the ruling monarchy to step down or cede power to the oppositionists. In Libya, however, Obama did issue a statement calling for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster after reports began to surface claiming that the megalomaniacal leader had ordered his military pilots to indiscriminately bomb civilians as well as invited foreign mercenaries into the country so as to ensure that he remained in power. Over the course of these past few weeks, in spite of the imposition of an UN-sanctioned no-fly zone, Gaddafi has sought to terrorize the Libyan population into submission so that he can reassert control over Libya’s inchoate political system. Finally, Saudi Arabia, America’s strongest ally in the Middle East, appears bent on bringing the Arab Spring to an abrupt end by repressing its citizens in a vulgar display of power and deploying forces to neighboring countries, in the hopes that doing so will cause a chilling effect.
To be fair, although the Obama administration is playing catch-up at the moment, high-ranking U.S. officials appear to be on the cusp of defining a new foreign policy agenda towards the Middle East, the region of the world which Obama deemed to be so crucial in 2009 that it required him to travel to Cairo in the early months of his presidency to deliver perhaps his most inspiring speech to date. Yet what does this policy entail? On the surface, it appears as if the U.S. is actively endorsing ‘regime change’ by calling for the removals of Mubarak and Gaddafi. Simultaneously, Obama seems to be sending mixed messages to the autocrats in Riyadh, Manama, Tehran, and elsewhere throughout the region by intervening in Libya to prevent a bloodbath in Benghazi (which in all likelihood would’ve occurred had Gaddafi’s loyalists routed the rebel militias with their superior air weaponry) but not ousting the colonel. Why is this so?
In my opinion, the United States has yet to craft a coherent foreign policy towards the Middle East because the sitting U.S. President has wedded himself to a foreign policy doctrine based on multilateralism, non-intervention, and a rapprochement with the Arab and Muslim world. In doing so, Obama (like Gorbachev) has strongly discredited his predecessor. That said, although America appears to be on the verge of embracing regime change for the alleged betterment of the region, the White House is somewhat reticent to do so because regime change has as of recently become synonymous with open-ended military adventures in third-world countries of minute strategic importance, ‘cowboy diplomacy’, and the likes of George W. Bush.  Still, it is important to recall the words Obama uttered in his Cairo speech, ‘that all people strive to attain certain fundamental rights and liberties and that the United States of America supports their struggles to realize them’. Hence, it appears as if the President’s own rhetoric is partially pushing America towards embracing an interventionist foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East.
Clearly, I don’t intend to argue here that George W. Bush in any way resembles Josef Stalin, that Obama’s policies to date have been on par with Gorbachev’s reforms in terms of significance, or that the former Soviet Union’s hold over Eastern Europe in any way resembles America’s influence in the Middle East today. It doesn’t. Instead, I seek to shed light on the notion that although Obama and Gorbachev share many similarities, the former can avoid the latter’s fate as long as he navigates his way through the Arab Spring. To survive the political fallout emanating from the Middle East, Obama must craft a coherent foreign policy towards the region; not a humanistic policy based on ‘mutual respect’ and ‘mutual interests’ amongst people across the Arab and Muslim world, but a foreign policy which makes U.S. interests top priority. After all, if the Obama administration chooses to embrace a humanistic foreign policy towards the Middle East, then must America intervene on behalf of ordinary people who rise up in protest in whichever country they choose to take to the streets so as to avoid charges of U.S. hypocrisy? And if so, then what effect will such a policy have on U.S. diplomacy in the greater Middle East?
Overall, Obama should not feel constrained by his predecessor’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, America should be willing to employ force (provided Washington possesses some degree of international support in doing so as well as a clearly defined military strategy and a viable post-war reconstruction plan, assuming that one is necessary) but only if the situation on the ground calls for it. Ideally, one may think that the best policy towards the region now calls for the use of force in Libya. By doing so, America has been able to prevent a state-sponsored massacre from taking place and sent a message to both the autocrats of the region and the Arab Street that the United States will simply not tolerate such insolent behavior. In pursuing such a policy, however, Obama is undoubtedly following a traversed path which led to defeat in Vietnam and humiliation in Somalia. This is not the path America should follow, for Gaddafi will not go without a fight. Moreover, even if the U.S. succeeds in staving off genocide, what happens then? Maintaining a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace indefinitely? Arming the rebels and ousting the colonel from power? And then what? De-Gaddafication? Clearing, holding, and building in Tripoli? Put simply, there is no light at the end of the tunnel to this military conflict.
In the heady moments of revolutionary upheavals, most Americans would like to see their government stand with those fighting against oppression and tyranny. Political leaders may also feel a strong inclination to initiate a sharp break with their country’s foreign policy agenda in a specific region by essentially ‘righting the wrongs’ of the past and riding the revolutionary wave, as opposed to remaining stoical in front of it and thinking it through until it has passed. America stands at a critical juncture now. In the autumn of 1989, Gorbachev chose to ride the wave by not intervening. He threw caution to the wind and declared that the USSR would not decide the political fates of its East European satellites by sending in Soviet tanks. The end result: Gorbachev was ousted several years later after losing his support base. To be certain, the 1989 revolutions did not seal Gorbachev’s fate. His own miscalculations back home surely contributed to his untimely downfall. That said, prior to the autumn of 1989 Gorbachev appeared to be virtually invincible. Looking back, the revolutionary upheavals that ignited across the countries of Eastern Europe greatly weakened Gorbachev’s clout within the CPSU because of his choice to not intervene. From there on out, things went from bad to worse for the crestfallen Soviet leader.
In closing, to avoid a similar fate, Obama needs to keep America from playing the role of the policeman of the Middle East who is called upon to ensure order in times of chaos. In the final analysis, the Arab Spring is likely to end soon, not because of U.S. inaction but because of state-sponsored repression by the regional hegemons of the Middle East. That is, unless America decides to more fully intervene in Libya in the name of freedom and human rights. At this time, it appears as if the Obama administration has come to realize the inherent dangers of riding the revolutionary wave. Still, should Obama choose to throw caution to the wind in Gorbachevian fashion and ride this wave, then America may well prolong the region’s upheaval and find itself meddling in yet another Muslim country’s respective domestic political affairs in the near future.

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