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Time for Obama to Say Kefaya

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TUNISIA PROTESTS
AP

The democracy protests that swept Tunisian President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali from power are going viral, but sadly President Obama and other Western leaders seem immune. Indeed, it is quite likely that the president and his colleagues in Europe are as frightened of the potential explosion of people power across the Middle East and North Africa as are the sclerotic autocratic leaders of the region against whom the protests are being directed.

The question is, why? Why would Obama, who worked so hard to reach out to the Muslim world with his famous 2009 speech in Cairo, be standing back quietly while young people across the region finally take their fate into their own hands and push for real democracy? Shouldn't the president of the United States be out in front, supporting non-violent democratic change across the world's most volatile region?

The answer, as is increasingly the case, comes from the ever-growing cache of leaked documents from WikiLeaks and other sources that are providing inside evidence of America's true interests and intentions in the Middle East.

Specifically, as the "Palestine Papers" revealed by al-Jazeera demonstrate (and which I will analyze in more detail in my next column), the US under Obama -- as much if not more so than under his predecessor -- demands that leaders remain in place who will do its bidding even if it means subverting the will of the citizens of a country and maintaining a system that manifestly harms their interests. Thus the administration at least twice threatened to cut funding to the PA if elections were called and anyone other than Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad remained in power. And it actively works with Israeli and Palestinian security services to deny the democratic will of Palestinians.

What is clear, then, is that Obama not only prefers the status quo, but the United States will actively subvert democracy in order to ensure that governments that will follow its policies remain in power. If the administration has taken such an anti-democratic line with Palestinians, imagine how it must feel about the protests that have just exploded in Egypt, where substantive democratic change and a truly representative government would no doubt be far less amenable to US policies and strategic objectives regarding Israel and the war on terror than is Mubarak's.

Such a position is as tragic as it is stupid, as the president has been offered an unprecedented and until a few weeks ago unimaginable opportunity to back radical but peaceful change that is not stained by Western intervention in a region that everyone believes must undergo such change in order to prevent it becoming even more of a hotbed for terrorism and anti-Western sentiments. There is no one in the intelligence community who does not know this, and as the numerous diplomatic cables brought to light by WikiLeaks have revealed, our diplomats across the region are equally aware of the corrosive effects of rampant government corruption, violence and authoritarianism on their societies as well.

So the question really needs to be asked, whose interests is President Obama serving by remaining silently supportive of the status quo when he could, and by any measure, should, be lending vocal, public support for the peoples of the Arab world as they finally rise up against their leaders?

Is it companies like Lockheed Martin, the massive defense contractor whose tentacles reach deep into every part of the fabric of governance (as revealed by William Hartung's powerful new book, Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military Industrial Complex)? Is it the superbanks who continue to rake in profits from an economy that is barely sputtering along, and who have joined with the military industrial complex's two principal axes -- the arms and the oil industries -- to form an impregnable triangle of corrupt economic and political power?

It's hard to think of any other candidates are the present time.

Tonight in his State of the Union address the world learned whether President Obama still has any of his once celebrated vision, courage and audacity left in him, or if he's been so thoroughly beaten down by the forces that actually run Washington that he can barely muster support for the young people around the Arab world who are increasingly saying "Kefaya," Enough! to their governments, and the larger global system that has kept them in power for so long.

At least when it comes to supporting the hard work of freedom in the region, the answer would seem to be no. The President did mention Tunisia, declaring "we saw the[e] desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people." But supporting a revolution that's already succeeded is both a "day late," and glaring in its omission of Egypt, whose capitol was burning as he made the speech.

Indeed, earlier in the day Secretary of State Clinton declared, "Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."

It was probably too much to ask the president to say "Kefaya" to the forces that have so circumscribed his once progressive vision. But it would have been nice if he could have at least offer a few words of support to Egyptians, who as residents of America's primary Arab ally, most need the vocal support of the United States, Egypt's main benefactor, if their attempt to end Mubarak's dictatorship is to have any chance of success.

But if backing away from supporting real democratic change in Egypt remains Obama's policy, the intifada in Egypt risks becoming a revolution against the US as much as against Mubarak, with far reaching consequences across the Muslim world.

Obama has very little time to get ahead of the curve of history; if he doesn't, we will all be the losers for his lack of vision.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in my al-Jazeera column.