Americans generally want to be excited about what’s happening in Egypt, Tunisia, and now perhaps even Yemen as Arabs seem to be peacefully earning their liberty from dictators. The trouble is that these were, especially in Egypt, our dictators. In Cold War style we supported these folks in return for their minimal cooperation on matters like Israel and terrorism.
A few years ago we began to imagine that we were beyond the dilemma of the Cold War. With Soviet power destroyed and freedom spreading in places like Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, the Bush Administration saw a chance to shift US policy in the Mideast. It would not have been a bad idea if it had been led by a competent Administration. It wasn’t.
They began urging a premature shift toward free elections, without properly understanding conditions on the ground. They skipped the problems of education, public services, or the lack of any grassroots, participatory political culture. Instead doing the hard work of promoting liberty, they started pushing democracy. Elections alone are not liberty.
There is irony in the fact that an American Administration run by fundamentalists was unable to anticipate that fundamentalists might win an election in the Palestinian territories. The potential risks of their effort to force the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority to hold a genuinely fair ballot in 2006 were obvious to everyone involved. But somehow the result caught the Bush Administration completely flatfooted (how many times have we had to say that?). They wanted elections, which may have been the right idea, but they were too intellectually lazy to prepare for the consequences everyone else feared.
When Hamas won a dominant majority the Palestinian establishment refused to recognize the results and tried to engineer a coup. The Bushies were left with their already limited credibility in jeopardy. Do you insist on the sanctity of democracy and recognize the repugnant new Palestinian government? Afterall, refusing to do that would tell the world that the whole push for democracy was a sham. Or do you write off the whole project and walk away?
Their efforts at democracy had by that time had put Hezbollah and Hamas in power on Israel’s borders. Afghanistan was a largely ignored mess. Iraq was violently out of control. Having just granted formal, legitimate power in the occupied territories to a Palestinian terrorist group, they had to give up.
Arabs got the message. Liberty movements that were just beginning to emerge in places like Egypt and Morocco felt a cold breeze from Washington. In Egypt, Mubarak felt a freer hand to repress dissent and used it. The Obama Administration brought hope, but no change (how many times have we had to say that?). They have talked about liberty, but their approach to these regimes has been more of the same.
We can’t say what the freedom movements in Tunisia and Egypt might produce. Thanks to Al Jazeera, the wave of protests that followed the fraudulent election in Iran were widely seen across the Arab world. That movement in Iran probably has more to do with what we’re seeing now in North Africa than anything we’ve ever done ourselves.
It is possible that some form of representative government may begin to emerge in these countries? If so then the challenge they create for us is the Gaza Problem. Will we let democracy begin to take root if it produces governments we don’t like? Because in the Arab world democracy is virtually certain to produce governments we don’t like.
Even if you could strip away all the layers of propaganda and distortion, Arabs still have reasons to resent the Israelis. Any free Arab regime will, at least initially, be vocally hostile to Israel. That hostility can perhaps be managed, but you can’t rationally expect to avoid it. How will we deal with a truly representative government that actively supports Hamas? How will we respond if free and fair elections bring fundamentalists to power?
Better yet, what will we do when these kinds of movements come to Saudi Arabia?
These have been abstract questions for more than a decade. Now they are stepping out of the think tanks and into real life. The first time around we flinched. Are we ready to face this problem now?
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