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Avi Spiegel

Avi Spiegel

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Can America Take Credit for the Arab Spring?

Posted: 05/21/11 01:17 PM ET

Is the Arab Spring really an "American" Revolution? According to President Obama and his speechwriters, the answer is, surprisingly, yes.

The dramatic political change that has taken place in the Middle East over the last six months has been led not by the United States, but by young protesters on the ground. Administration officials have largely been relegated to the role of spectators -- watching, not directing, events unfolding before their eyes.

The president sought yesterday, in what was hailed as a major policy address on the Arab Spring, to re-assess and re-assert American influence in the region.

Obama began by reflecting on recent changes, and then admitted that it was not America that put people on the streets. But then he couldn't help himself. He went on to place the Arab Spring in starkly American terms, and by doing so he managed to mischaracterize the ongoing protests, fumble over historical analogies, and ultimately undermine his effort to refocus American foreign policy toward the changing region.

Early in the speech, the president attempted to paint the Tunisian catalyst for the Arab Spring as following in the footsteps of American heroes. The now famous fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, managed to provoke mass protests back in December in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. President Obama likened Bouazizi to Rosa Parks --- he set himself on fire just as Parks "sat courageously in her seat." The truth is that because of Bouazizi's death, he was never able to play the same active and continuing role in his protest movement that Rosa Parks assumed in the American civil rights movement.

Within a myriad of mixed historical metaphors, the president also managed to compare the Arab Spring to both the American Revolution and the American Civil War. In addition to Rosa Parks, Bouazizi was also equated to the original tea party activists. The protesters have been both rebelling "against an empire" and "enslaved." But the Arab Spring is neither a war for national independence or a monolithic civil war. Since January, pundits have been trying to claim that we are witnessing a redux of 1848 or 1968 or 1979 or even 1989. But shouldn't we be content simply to give each of these protest movements their own place in history? To do otherwise is to diminish these unique movements that have assumed their own shapes and forms in each country. They are also struggles that are far from over. As Simon Montefiore has rightly pointed out: "Every revolution is revolutionary in its own way."

The president even harkened back to his speech in Cairo two years ago as if to suggest that he was ahead of the curve -- that it was his oratory that foreshadowed, perhaps even helped spearhead, the dramatic change taking place today. He claimed to affirm in Cairo the sentiment that "the status quo is not sustainable" (a favorite theme of the Arab Spring), but he never uttered those words in 2009.

Obama was also sure to point out that it was American technology that helped fuel recent protests. "The greatest untapped resource in the Middle East and North Africa," the president said, "is the talent of its people." But he then managed to negate that claim in the very next lines: "In the recent protests, we see that talent on display, as people harness technology to move the world. It's no coincidence that one of the leaders of Tahrir Square was an executive for Google." The implied meaning here was unfortunate: the people on their own couldn't have accomplished much, but with the aid of the Internet, and especially the American giant Google and its personnel, they were finally able to tap into their own talents.

The president concluded his speech by quoting from, not surprisingly, the Declaration of Independence. In a favorite rhetorical tool of both candidate and President Obama, he couldn't resist making himself part of the story, personally connecting his own narrative to events taking place far away from home. "I would not be standing here today," the president said, "unless past generations turned to the moral force of nonviolence as a way to perfect our union -- organizing, marching, protesting peacefully together to make real those words that declared our nation: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"

The message throughout the speech was clear: Some have claimed that America has been invisible over the course of the last tumultuous six months in the Middle East, but we have been there all along. These Arab revolutions are really "American" revolutions.

But the most effective way to reclaim American influence in the region is not by overstating our power over the Arab Spring. Rather, it is to specify exactly what the United States will do in the coming months to help the young people on the ground who are struggling --- in many places for their lives --- for political change. What will we do if Gaddafi continues to flout American power and murder his own citizens? What will we do if Assad in Syria does not (as the president remarked) simply "get out of the way?" What will we do if Bahrain continues to repress and imprison religious minorities? These are the kinds of questions that need answering. The time for rhetoric has long since passed.

Avi Spiegel is an assistant professor of political science at the University of San Diego in California and a fellow at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas. He is completing a book on the next generation of political Islam, based on fieldwork among young Islamist activists.