THE REVOLT in Tunisia that brought about an abrupt collapse of the regime headed by President Zin El Abidine Ben Ali ought to serve as a wake-up call for Washington. This was a regime that US diplomats described, in cables released by WikiLeaks, as a family mafia kept in power by a secret-police state. Yet Ben Ali was treated by successive US administrations as a valuable ally in the war against Islamist extremism. When America allows itself to be identified with corrupt and repressive Arab rulers, the people suffering under those rulers will inevitably resent the United States as an enabler of dictatorship.
To her credit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said some of what needs to be said earlier this month at a Forum for the Future in Qatar. In some Arab countries, she told the assembled Arab elites, “people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order.’’ To give substance to her assessment, the Obama administration needs to exert pressure on the interim leaders of Tunisia to allow for honest elections, with time for all parties to organize and campaign, with freedom of expression, and with international monitors to ensure the balloting and vote-counting are not rigged.
For his part, President Obama should speak out more pointedly in favor of democracy and human rights in Middle Eastern countries ruled by Washington’s friends. It is no accident that the most pro-American populace in the region is in Iran. Iranians believe that the enemy of their enemy must be their friend.