Tunisia: Democratic Triumph or U.S. Disaster?

01/16/2011 04:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Officially, the Obama administration greeted the "Jasmine" revolution in Tunisia with open arms, calling for free and fair elections as the U.S. scrambled to get aboard the democratic bandwagon.

Celebration is restrained, however, in Washington. Instead, there's serious concern about who will take the place of the corrupt, 74-year-old Tunisian dictator, who, until the end, was considered an important American ally in the War on Terror.

Assuming the Tunisian military actually agrees to hold free elections (not at all a sure thing), will the generals really throw open the doors to all political groups? Nationalists? Islamists? Marxists? Anti-militarists? What forces will roil to the surface after decades of political repression? Will they throw in their lot with America's War on Terror, or join the ranks of those in the Middle East who increasingly see what's going on as the U.S.'s war against Islam?

Washington's ambivalent view was evident even before the revolution was victorious. In Doha on Thursday, Hillary Clinton lectured Arab autocrats and others meeting there on the urgent need for reform and an end to rampant corruption if they wanted to save their regimes.

But just a couple of days earlier, as young demonstrators were being gunned down in the cities and towns of Tunisia, when Hillary was asked which side the U.S. was on, she replied that the U.S. was "not taking sides."

U.S. officials have reason to hesitate. Jasmine uprisings across the Middle East and Central Asia could spell disaster for American policy.

There is no way, for instance, that Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 30 years, will permit a democratic opening. Thanks to his ironclad dictatorship, the only group who has been able to organize politically are the Islamic radicals. More secular-minded opponents have been either co-opted or imprisoned or totally cowed. The influence of the religious extremists has grown throughout the country -- anti-American and anti-Israel. It's only the military that stands between Mubarak and chaos.

But, like a deer frozen in on-coming headlights, Washington seems immobilized. On the one hand, there's the corrupt, despotic, and failing Mubarak. But he's a friend. On the other hand, truly free and fair elections would almost certainly bring leaders to power much more virulently anti-Israel and opposed to U.S. policies. Perhaps they're hoping for the Egyptian military to step in again to save itself and its privileges -- and the U.S.

Indeed, elsewhere throughout the region, from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to Yemen to Ethiopia to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the picture seems markedly similar: U.S. allies are invariably corrupt dictators, maintained in power by lavish patronage and the military.

Ironically, in Lebanon, where the public has had a growing voice in national politics, it's the anti-American and anti-Israel Hezbollah who have ridden popular acclaim to become the decisive voice in the country.

Similarly in Iraq, popular participation also has benefited America's most outspoken enemy there: Moqtada al-Sadr., whose followers fought bloody battles against the U.S. after the invasion. Seemingly vanquished, he has returned from three years in Iran to wield a decisive political voice in Iraq. He demands the withdrawal of all U.S. troops and bases from his country.

Ironically, because of the elections in Iraq, the country that will almost certainly be calling the shots there in the future will not be the United States, but Iran.

Meanwhile, moderates pushing for something akin to democracy and secular rule are losing ground. In Pakistan, the soldier who killed the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who had been outspoken in his fight against religious fundamentalism, was showered with rose petals while many of the country's lawyers -- who had once gone to the streets demanding democratic reform -- celebrated the murderer as a national hero.

And democracy in Israel? A true democracy with a vote for every person -- Jews and all the Arabs under Israeli control -- including those living in the West Bank? Forget it. It would be the end of the Zionist dream of a Jewish State. We don't hear Hillary or Obama talking much about that these days.

Indeed, at the end of her lecture to the Arab leaders in Doha, one of Hillary's Arab audience asked why the U.S. wasn't doing its share to fight the war against Islamic fundamentalism by putting more pressure on Israel to deal with the Palestinians. Her answer -- pointing out that the U.S. paid more to finance the Palestinian Authority than did most of the Arab countries -- simply dodged the issue.

Of course, it would be unfair to point out that, after her civics lesson in Doha, Hillary returned to Washington where, even after the lurid shootings in Arizona, U.S. legislators are unable to discuss clamping down on firearms because of the all-powerful gun lobby. It's also Washington where American officials, from Obama on down, are terrified of taking on the pro-Israel lobby -- not because the lobby represents the views of the majority of Americans or even a great majority of American Jews, but because it wields a very undemocratic power far beyond its numbers.