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Raghida Dergham Headshot

The Obama Administration and the Arab Renaissance

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The surprises of 2011 will not stop with the death of Osama bin Laden, having started with the "Arab Street" crushing all expectations wagering on its deep slumber. Instead, the Arab Street rose up and rebelled, forcing all countries to return to the blackboard, to draft policies that would seriously take into account a "public opinion" that now imposes its views; and that is not merely a "street" or a "herd" anymore. The phenomenon known today as the 'Arab Spring' started completely independent from the doctrine of destruction embraced by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. As a result, this doctrine suffered a great decline in the Arab mind, and as regards the generation of change which elected building as a doctrine instead of destruction. Osama bin Laden was then killed, earning President Barack Obama international recognition as a man of determination, resolve, and a man of action, who must be reckoned with and seriously taken into every account. The fact that the uprising of the Arab peoples has coincided with the decline of al-Qaeda and the elimination of its infamous leader, as well as with the US President regaining his momentum and power of initiative, represents yet another moment that carries the seeds for more surprises. Such surprises are not far from the priorities of the Americans, Russians, Chinese and Europeans, and mostly involve the Middle East and the Gulf. In truth, decision-makers in those countries are studying the meaning of this moment and are exploring how to exploit it and benefit from it on the long term. Washington hence is very preoccupied these days. The Obama administration wants to exploit the momentum of resolve and determination that the US President revived in the mind of the international community, as a serious and capable man, and it is now inevitable to be extremely calculating when dealing with him. The world today will listen more carefully than it did when Barack Obama vacillated between hesitation and retreat, or when he seemed incapable of delivering on his pledges and promises. With regard to Afghanistan, the death of Osama bin Laden may prove to be the spark needed to implement an American exit strategy. The US President, who is seeking a second term, does not want to remain weighed down by what is now known as "Obama's War" in Afghanistan. Striking a near fatal blow to al-Qaeda by liquidating its leader, will thus no doubt help justify a withdrawal from Afghanistan, and will give the case for an exit strategy a big boost.

Meanwhile, Pakistan will not become an "enemy" to the US administration, no matter how strong public criticism of Pakistan and voices demanding it be held to account are, as Pakistan is being accused of harboring bin Laden near a military zone, whether with prior knowledge or inadvertently. The fact of the matter is that while the relationship between the United States and Pakistan is complex, it is not frail. It is a strategic relationship that goes beyond the war against extremism and terrorism, especially at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda. There are clear concerns regarding the fact that greater numbers of Pakistanis are joining the ranks of al-Qaeda and similar groups, at the level of senior positions. There is talk of a Pakistani man from Kashmir taking over leadership of Al-Qaeda, both effectively and on the field, and not Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who is considered to be Bin Laden's successor during the current transitional phase. There is also concern resulting from Pakistan's military, security and intelligence institution having possibly been infiltrated by extremists and terrorists from the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The death of Osama Bin Laden removes the Arab face from the leadership of terrorism, and this is very valuable for the Arab Spring. The Arabs have paid the highest price for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which brought them nothing good. In taking revenge for the attacks of 9/11, former President George W. Bush launched the "War on Terror" and its doctrine, in the name of which, he invaded and occupied Iraq. Arab youth became the subject of questioning and interrogation at every station and airport. The Palestinians paid an exorbitant price because al-Qaeda hijacked their cause and used it to serve its own narrow considerations, contributing to branding the Palestinians with terrorism and allowing Israel to benefit from this to mobilize its forces and reduce the Palestinian issue to one of counter-terrorism. Nor did Osama Bin Laden spare the Arabs from his destructive attacks in their homeland. However, this backfired against him and against al-Qaeda, and led the majority of the Arabs to become partners in combating the terrorism of al-Qaeda and its ilk.

The scene today is contrary to what was desired by Osama Bin Laden's destructive streak that he sought to unleash on the Arab region. The Arab Spring has completely ignored the doctrine of al-Qaeda which calls for the hatred of America and for violence and destruction as a means of inducing change. The Arab Spring has chosen instead, to rise against the regimes that have oppressed it as well as against al-Qaeda, which had set itself up as the only alternative to those regimes. This was the first staggering blow to al-Qaeda, and it came from Tunisia and Egypt, and from Libya and Syria as well. The inter-Palestinian reconciliation also represents a strong blow to Osama bin Laden's doctrine and to his organization. Such reconciliation has come as a result of the climate of change on the Arab scene, stretching from Egypt to Syria. Were it not for the events in Syria, which highlight the weakness of the regime as a result of the protesters' insistence on change, the Hamas leadership would not have decided that it was time to act and bring the Palestinians together. And just as Hamas lost hope in Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, the Palestinian President lost hope in the Obama Administration, and it is this common factor that was decisive in bringing them together. The US Administration is aware of this, yet it is not clear whether it intends to comply with the incitement to punish the Palestinian Authority because of the reconciliation, or to make use of the momentum of determination and resolve to act independently and implement Obama's promises. The Obama administration is aware of the possibility of a vacuum occurring that would harm its role in the future, if it were to ignore the Palestinian issue and the Arab-Israeli conflict. There are indications that it realizes that neither the Arab Spring nor the killing of Osama bin Laden will take away the issue from the Arab mind, but perhaps that the opposite would happen. Nevertheless, it is not clear whether the US President will have the boldness to create a surprise when it comes to Israel during an electoral year, but the administration realizes that the old considerations are out of the question when it comes to the new Arab Spring.

In the past, US Administrations used to rely on the authorities in the Arab World to quell the voices of their people, and they used to presume in their strategies the exclusion of the element of "the street", being assured of containing it. Today, after the Arab people have risen, it has become inevitable for Washington not to be prejudiced, nor to excessively trust its predictions on what Arab public opinion may hold in its pockets. That is why it is being cautious. Thus, the leaders of the US Administration have the following considerations in mind:

* The need for strategies that would support the democratic transitional period, specifically in Tunisia and in Egypt, with economic and trade strategies. This is while insisting on the success of those two experiences, which have arisen from within and represent the absolute response against the discourse of al-Qaeda and the likes of it. In addition, friends in power in Morocco, Jordan and the Gulf, must be enticed, behind the scenes, to adopt reform and change, by taking the initiative, and not by being forced into it.

* Setting down security strategies that would strengthen relations of partnership with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), especially against Iran, while stressing the necessity of complying with the legitimate demands of people and resorting to political solutions through dialogue, and not through security solutions.

* Encouraging and supporting the role being played by the GCC in Yemen, while being convinced that the GCC initiative attempting to push President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down will succeed.

* Encouraging the role being played by Turkey in both Libya and Syria, knowing that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has demanded that Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi step down immediately, after Turkey had put forward an initiative similar to the GCC initiative with Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, this was met with cynicism and rejection by Gaddafi. Indeed, Washington considers that Gaddafi will certainly be driven out, if he does not leave voluntarily, by the military pressures being exerted by NATO and the financial pressures that prevent the Libyan regime from hiring mercenaries. It also considers Turkey to represent a "gauge" for the situation in Iraq, Syria, and in Iran as well.

* Washington considers that the Syrian regime's "arrogance" and the Iranian regime's "conceit" are misleading them into believing that they are above being held to account and to believe that they enjoy extraordinary immunity. The Obama administration admits that it had been slow to deal with the Syrian issue three weeks ago. But today the matter is different, and there have been three developments: first, the fact that Ankara reached important conclusions on the Syrian issue after it tried to convince Damascus of the necessity of anticipating events and the latter paid no heed; second, the fact that Europe is prepared to impose further sanctions and take further measures to isolate the Syrian regime at the international level; and third, the fact that the United States has become convinced that the time has come to act with more resolve by taking measures and public stances at the level of the US President. In other words, the Obama Administration will move forward with reinforcing and strengthening its core message, which is that the Assad regime "has lost all legitimacy". It has become convinced that there are many gaps in this regime that can be exploited, by the US taking unilateral measures to remove legitimacy and the cover of protection from Damascus, and by international measures being taken through, for example, the report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) next month, which could find its way to the Security Council. This is alongside endorsing the British proposal of having the International Criminal Court (ICC) look into whether the Syrian regime is committing crimes against humanity.

* Lebanon is not on the US Administration's radar except in terms of developments in Syria and Iran. The leaders of the US Administration consider Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati's task of forming the government to have become more complicated due to the developments in Syria, and in view of the process taking such a long period of time. Regarding Hezbollah, the strategy it will choose depends on what will happen within Iran. Most likely, according to the American analysis, Hezbollah will not take risks in turbulent times such as these and take over power and the country, but will rather be more cautious. But this is the time of surprises, and not all of them are of the same kind or go in the same direction, which is why this is also the time to be extra-cautious.

So far, the Arab Spring remains the best of all surprises; having engendered what is new and constructive to replace what is destructive and authoritarian, or what has long been imprisoning Arab history.