Jacob Heilbrunn

The Arab World's 1848

Tunisia isn't just causing heartburn in Egypt. This could be the Arab world's 1848. Just as 1848 witnessed a wave of revolutions that sought to sweep away the order established by Metternich at the Congress of Vienna, so a new young generation is trying to remake the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world.

By and large, the revolutions of 1848 failed. But this time, the consequences could go beyond the Arab world. Is the revolt in Tunisia going to blow up the world as we know it? And is George W. Bush the father of this revolutionary wave?

According to Elliott Abrams in the Washington Post, he is. The Bush doctrine is being vindicated. Bush called for freedom. Here it is. Expect to hear a lot more of this from leading neoconservatives.

Obviously, I'm simplifying somewhat, but only a little. Abrams makes a strong case for Bush. But there's only one problem: the demonstrations in Egypt appear to be anti-American. Abrams, I think, would argue that Obama should have been much more aggressive in pushing for liberalization and democracy rather than simply paying  lipservice to it. What could replace authoritarianism, however, is a weird brew of nationalism and Islamism, neither of which is particularly well-disposed toward America.

The truth is that more uprisings may well be in the offing, with unpredictable consequences for American foreign policy. Small wonder that President Obama is treading warily in Egpyt, as is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Egypt could be just the start. Hosni Mubarak is doomed. But his fall could trigger further upheaval abroad.

The most likely countries to explode after Egypt are Pakistan and Jordan. Both are moderate, American allies, at least in name. Both are repressive regimes. And both enjoy tenuous legitimacy.

At the most extreme case both China and Russia would experience mass upheaval as well. Already modern media is clearly fueling the revolution in Egypt, but not every country has its own Al Jazeera. But it would be no small irony if Tunisia was the spark that lit the powderkeg of world revolution.

For President Obama it could pose the greatest challenge of his presidency. So far, he's temporizing. But he could face the most consequential choice of his presidency as he decides how to navigate the turbulent new revolutionary seas that he envisioned in his speech in Cairo but only half-heartedly believed in.

Nor is America necessarily exempt from these developments. Obama, as David Bromwich has observed, never mentions the Tea Party in his speeches. Instead, he likes to blather on anodynely about "folks." Who these "folks" are he never says. If America continues on its current course, Obama may have to confront his own insurgency in America where liberals are increasingly restive with his presidency and where the rise of the Tea Party is itself an explicitly revolutionary movement that wants to return to the ideals of the founding fathers.