It was Lenin who said "there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen". It seems like decades worth of history are suddenly happening in the Middle East, with every morning bringing some new development that would have been scarcely imaginable a few months ago.
There is much talk in Washington DC and elsewhere of this being a 1989 moment (or even an 1848 one), a massive reordering of global politics. It's hard to think otherwise, but good outcomes are far from guaranteed, and the U.S. Government needs to work harder to get on the right side of history.
The Obama Administration's record on developments has so far been mixed. Slow to appreciate the strength of the revolution in Egypt and Tunisia, it prevaricated and sent mixed messages to the region about whether it wanted Mubarak to stay or go. The U.S. Government still has lots of explaining to do to the people of Egypt and Tunisia about why it supported the repressive regimes there so strongly and for so long, and needs to convince people there that it's now on the side of democracy and human rights. Some young pro-democracy leaders, unhappy at U.S. policy, refused to meet Secretary Hillary Clinton in Cairo last week.
In Egypt, the Obama Administration ought to be seen to be providing compensation for the losses suffered during the uprisings, and commit to developing a substantial trade package, debt forgiveness and other economic support. It should also help trace and repatriate money the corrupt Mubarak regime stole from the people.
It needs to declare that the recent reports of Egyptian soldiers detaining and abusing peaceful protesters should be investigated, and those responsible punished. If this is the message in Egypt, it must be the message in Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and elsewhere too.
There can be no double standard, no taking it easier on Saudi Arabia or Bahrain because they are allies. I called a human rights activist in Bahrain a couple of days ago who had been shot during a protest -- he wasn't seriously hurt, but told me people were being denied medical treatment by soldiers occupying the hospital, preventing doctors from treating the wounded. Secretary Clinton's message to the Bahrain Government that it was "on the wrong track" in cracking down on peaceful protests went some way in the right direction, but it's not really an overall strategy for promoting democracy in Bahrain. Some pro-democracy activists in Bahrain also believe the U.S. Government gave the green light for Saudi troops to enter the country to suppress dissent.
The rubber bullets, tear gas canisters and other weapons used by the security forces in Bahrain and elsewhere to crack down on the protests are often stamped 'Made in the US'. It's not great PR for America with the pro-democracy demonstrators.
On Libya, U.S. diplomats did well in securing multilateral support for the UN resolution authorizing military force to protect civilians, which at the time of writing appears to have stayed Qaddafi's hand. But if the U.S. Government is to win the trust of people across the Middle East, it needs to convince them that its days of propping up repressive, torturing, corrupt regimes are over.
Popular uprisings pulled down the dictatorships built in Lenin's name in 1989. There are plenty of examples from those days in Eastern Europe on how to -- and how not to -- make a successful transition from authoritarianism. The important thing for the U.S. in the coming days is to be consistent in pushing for democratic reforms and respect for human rights. There really is a chance to make decades of progress in the next few weeks.