It began in Tunisia. Followed closely by Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain, Libya, [insert other nations here].
The Middle East is changing. In only a few years, we will look back at this time as a major turning point. Historians may look back from the perspective of many decades and offer their own interpretation of the events leading up to 2011.
After all is said and done, we may see more free nations rise from the current turmoil, where people are no longer ruled by dictators or religious leaders. On the other hand, if Islamists* come to power, we have a dark and complex future ahead of us.
Who deserves and who will get credit for the transformative change in the Middle East? The partisan in me believes that historians will give President Obama credit if the results are good, and President Bush credit if the results are bad. But there is a case, good and bad, for both Obama and Bush.
A Free Middle East
If we look back and find a free Middle East, George W. Bush could be given credit for his foresight in freeing Iraq in2003. This historical viewpoint will naturally catalog the controversy surrounding the decision to go to war, but the long-view will recognize Bush's belief that all people long to be free. This historical view will catalog his speeches explaining how a free nation in the heart of the Middle East (besides Israel) would inspire other nations to follow suit, and encourage democracy across the region.
Historians who give credit to Barack Obama will probably begin the narrative with his speech from Cairo, articulating the basic human rights we are all entitled to, and understanding and accepting our cultural differences. The strongest argument in support of this view is that Obama was in the White House at the time of the change, and lazy reporters tend to credit presidents for anything that happens "on their watch." Plus, Obama may continue to take actions that result in positive outcomes in the region before his term expires.
An Islamist Middle East
If instead, when we look back, we find that the Middle East has taken a wrong turn towards Islamism, historians will likely point to Bush's meddling in the region. After all, the bungled war in Iraq only stirred new resentment against America, and Afghanistan proved to be almost as bad as Vietnam. This narrative will highlight the videos of burning American flags and Bush effigies.
Obama will be cast as an indifferent leader if the worst comes to pass. Unlike Bush, who started two wars in that part of the world, Obama tried to mend relations with leaders of the Middle East. But when peaceful protests began – starting with Iran in 2010 – and when underground democrats finally took to the streets, Obama did little to offer his support, in some cases backing the dictator still in power.
Historians will note how Obama's words were carefully parsed, and that his strongest desire appeared to be to not influence the internal events of sovereign nations. In the end, historians will report, his apparent indifference led to the rise of more brutal dictators, and a more dangerous Middle East. Luckily, they will have burning Obama effigies to point to bolster their arguments.
Choose Your Narrative
As a friend frequently points out, people seek out evidence for the position they already hold, so I guess the final narrative will depend on the biases of the historians telling the story. As I hope I’ve demonstrated above, there is evidence to support any viewpoint.
From our point in time, it's impossible to know the final picture in the Middle East, and it's hard to judge who gets the credit or the blame. Perhaps the U.S. president isn’t actually the center of the universe and neither Obama nor Bush deserves any credit or blame. But historians may define early 2011 as a significant turning point in world history.
*I hope I don't need to define Islamist for most of you. I'm not suggesting that Islamic nations are necessarily bad, only that Islamist nations are.