The comparisons have been arriving, fast and furious. It’s like 1989; or 1979; or 1789. Are the demonstrations and rebellions rocking the Middle East this year a French Revolution for the region, or another Iranian Revolution? In truth, the best comparison for the events taking place across the Middle East this year is with 1848, when much of Europe erupted in revolt. In 1848, Europe was much like the Middle East today, but the region was only partially transformed. Some leaders, like King Louis-Philippe of France, were toppled, but many others held on to their power. A similar dynamic is likely to play out in the Middle East in 2011.
With unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, and Bahrain, the fate of the entire Middle East hangs in the balance. The longtime leaders of Tunisia and Egypt have already fallen, and others are likely to be forced from power before long. Not every country in the Middle East will go the way of Egypt, and part of the complexity of the unrest for world leaders—and its fascination for informed onlookers—is determining which leaders will go and which will stay.
The United States’ role, limited as it may be after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the general distrust of American intervention in the Middle East, will be to help pick the winners and losers from the unrest. Right now, with the NATO-led attempt to enforce a no-fly zone over the country, President Obama is staking his bet on ensuring that Muammar Qaddafi of Libya is one of those losers. Whether he’ll be able to deliver, however, remains another story entirely.
Obama devoted his first two years in office to fighting battles of his own choice—health care reform, financial reform, and the like. Now, world events are determining his choices, and the intervention in Libya is a risky move, whose outcome remains unknown. Will international interference be enough to topple Qaddafi, or will the wily Libyan leader figure out a way to keep his power, against the odds? The leaders of the West—Obama, Britain’s David Cameron, and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy foremost among them—have banded together to ensure that there will not be another repeat of the infernal dithering over Bosnia and Kosovo that cost so many thousands of lives. President Obama should be commended for his forthright leadership in dealing with Libya, and preventing mass slaughter of civilians. But having ensured that the world will not face another Kosovo, the United States needs to be careful not to get embroiled in another Afghanistan—another military engagement without a clear resolution, or endpoint.