In a private phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, almost two weeks after the unrest began, President Barack Obama finally called for Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi to step down. While the President's inertia may have been mitigated by the need to get Americans out of the country so Qadhafi could not take any hostages, the incident demonstrates again that the wave of revolution currently sweeping North Africa and the Middle East took the Obama Administration completely by surprise. And for good reason: President Obama's "engagement" strategy toward the "Islamic world" is thoroughly outdated and irrelevant.
The first wave of revolutions in the region came in the middle of the last century and was made up of nationalist revolts against European colonialism. The next wave, the Islamist revolt, came a generation later, upending corrupt monarchies and nationalist regimes set up after the colonial era. Each of these movements—nationalist and Islamist—pretended to be "pan" movements of some kind. But they never caught on because their universal claims were myths, undermined by tribal, religious, and nationalist divisions. The third wave we are witnessing today is completely different. Heritage Foundation Vice President and former Assistant Secretary of State Kim Holmes explains:
Arab nationalism was largely an elite phenomenon that drove and exploited popular sentiments. Islamism is driven by clerics and political ideologues like the Muslim Brotherhood who likewise exploit peoples' religious beliefs and social resentments. The current third wave of revolt is truly a bottom-up, people driven movement. It's driven not by nationalism, Islamism or any other 20th Century "ism," but by a 21st Century socially linked-up mass movement of people who are sick of corruption, the lack of representative government, and being poor. … Despite the unique national and tribal features of each movement, it is united by the same emotional revulsion to the ruin and corruption created by the first two waves of revolution in the Middle East. The people of Libya are no less disgusted with Qadhafi than the people of Iran are with Ahmadinejad. One may be largely Sunni Arabs and the other Shiite Persians, but both are utterly finished with the ideologies, pretentions, and results of the Middle East's first two failed revolutions.
This new movement exposes the fact that everything the Obama Administration believed was important in the Middle East – from the Arab-Israeli talks to Obama's apology tour – is completely irrelevant. Just look at how al-Qaeda has been sidelined by events. Its leaders have been horrified by the outbreak of demands for democracy and freedom, since they are utterly against those values. Of course, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt are trying to figure out how to take advantage of this new opening, so we must watch out for an Islamist backlash. But that is all the more reason the world needs a strong voice in favor of democracy and individual freedom from the United States.
The Administration must get our objectives and strategy clear very quickly. If we want to see the Egyptian revolution turn out well, we need to be more forceful in talking with the army there about how to proceed with elections and reform the economy. If we want Qadhafi out of power without further bloodshed, we need a clearer and more public voice. And most importantly, if we find Ahmadinejad's behavior unacceptable, we need to consider options more forceful than talking with "multilateral institutions."