On the day the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, I remember watching President George H.W. Bush react with reserve and an absence of gloating despite the sheer size of that victory for democracy, signaling the West's triumph in the Cold War.
Bush’s low-key stance drew some criticism. But combined with subsequent encouragement of both Soviet restraint and the region’s democratic forces, it helped pave the way for a peaceful transition that ended nearly five decades of artificial political and military barriers within Europe.
In a sense, the democratic revolutions sweeping the Arab world bear some similarities to the ones two decades ago in Eastern Europe. They, too, reflect the impact of a global communications revolution, although they basically represent indigenous uprisings fueled by long-simmering resentment of authoritarian rule.
And President Barack Obama, coping with the same sorts of issues that Bush faced two decades ago, is showing the same wise restraint, despite pressure for a more assertive U.S. role, especially in the bitter struggle now enmeshing Libya.
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Obama’s path ultimately should turn out to be the best one, especially since the Arab world’s transition may prove far more complex than Eastern Europe’s transformation from Soviet satellite to sometimes uneasy partners with the West.
The countries that stretch from Morocco in northwest Africa to the oil-rich Persian Gulf emirates make up one of the world’s most volatile regions, partly due to continuing tensions from the Arab-Israeli dispute and partly from strains within Islam itself.
Not only does Obama’s careful approach resemble that of Bush, it also mirrors those of other Cold War presidents from both parties who resisted direct U.S. involvement in the sporadic anti-Soviet uprisings that rocked Eastern Europe from World War II to the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Like them, he seeks to encourage the spread of democracy while avoiding anything that makes the U.S. an issue in the uprisings or undermines the fragile stability of a region on whose rich oil supplies Americans remain heavily dependent.
Obama showed how to balance those tensions in his evolving response to the demonstrations that caused the ouster of Egypt’s longtime pro-U.S. president, Hosni Mubarak. Initially restrained because Mubarak has so often supported U.S. policies, Obama helped show him the door when it became evident change was inevitable.
In Libya, by contrast, the U.S. position has been less ambivalent and more direct, namely because the country’s embattled leader, Moammar Gadhafi, is an unstable despot.
Obama is considering joining top U.S. allies in implementing some sort of an international “no-fly” zone to protect Libyan rebels. But Obama has wisely resisted pressure for a more active U.S. military role from those who seem determined to ignore the lessons from Vietnam to Iraq.
Future events in the Arab world are likely to proceed with unforeseen twists and turns, given the vagaries of the Arab-Israeli dispute and the parallel conflicts within Islam between fundamentalist and modernist forces and between rival Sunni and Shiite factions.
So far, leaders of the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings seem to reflect the U.S. hope that democratic, pro-U.S. governments will emerge. But fundamentalist forces are major players in Yemen, and the future seems especially hazy in places such as Saudi Arabia.
Still, Obama shows he understands that while these countries continue to play an important role affecting American security, the U.S. can’t control events in them. Failure to heed that lesson could detract from the positive forces already at work.
Carl P. Leubsdorf, former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.