Manipulated over the past century and a half by greedy outsiders and their own repressive leaders, many Arabs in the middle east and north Africa are saying, "Enough already!" In country after country from Morocco to Bahrain, popular uprisings are now a raging fire. The long simmering resentment of ordinary people against widespread corruption, unemployment, grotesque inequalities and curtailment of freedom which is now a growing explosive anger, is said to have been sparked by the self-immolation of a young Tunisian man who refused to be cowed down by the brutality of a corrupt police force. The wave of protests has caught the world by surprise, especially the recent events in Egypt where the stunning removal from power of Hosni Mubarak, the long time dictator and US ally was unimaginable just a few short months ago. Egyptians themselves are probably among the most surprised. This time the bogeyman for the mass demonstrators is not the US or Israel, but their own leaders who have long exploited anti-US sentiments to control the citizenry while doing the bidding of the west for their own profit. I have no special insights to add to what we are hearing in the news about the middle east. Things are in a ferment; it is hard to predict how the present and future will shape up in Egypt or elsewhere, and what the implications are for the coming trends in geo-politics. At this moment, the hottest spot in the Arab fire storm is in Libya where the crazy colonel has threatened to become a martyr while inciting a civil war among his countrymen with the help of foreign mercenaries. A map of the region shows the time line and the current status of events in the affected areas.
In the midst of this turmoil, which seems to be entirely homegrown and the result of years of repression by brutal and brittle dictatorships, it is very tiresome to hear some commentators pontificate on what the west, especially the US, should or should not have done. I am not talking only about neo-con warmongers or demented talk show fearmongers, who have predictably become sudden critics of democracy and liberty. Some serious conservative thinkers are also weighing in with the tired, tested and failed foreign policy solutions of the past that led to disasters such as the immoral wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Once again, they blithely assume that the US can always shape things to its own liking elsewhere in the world and "stability" can be assured by backroom politicking within the US state department and the White House briefing room. Here is an excerpt from an irritatingly arrogant essay by Niall Ferguson in Newsweek.
The wave Obama just missed—again—is the revolutionary wave of Middle Eastern democracy. It has surged through the region twice since he was elected: once in Iran in the summer of 2009, the second time right across North Africa, from Tunisia all the way down the Red Sea to Yemen. But the swell has been biggest in Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous country.
In each case, the president faced stark alternatives. He could try to catch the wave, Bismarck style, by lending his support to the youthful revolutionaries and trying to ride it in a direction advantageous to American interests. Or he could do nothing and let the forces of reaction prevail. In the case of Iran, he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations. This time around, in Egypt, it was worse. He did both—some days exhorting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave, other days drawing back and recommending an “orderly transition.”
The result has been a foreign-policy debacle. The president has alienated everybody: not only Mubarak’s cronies in the military, but also the youthful crowds in the streets of Cairo. Whoever ultimately wins, Obama loses. And the alienation doesn’t end there. America’s two closest friends in the region—Israel and Saudi Arabia—are both disgusted. The Saudis, who dread all manifestations of revolution, are appalled at Washington’s failure to resolutely prop up Mubarak. The Israelis, meanwhile, are dismayed by the administration’s apparent cluelessness.
Last week, while other commentators ran around Cairo’s Tahrir Square, hyperventilating about what they saw as an Arab 1989, I flew to Tel Aviv for the annual Herzliya security conference. The consensus among the assembled experts on the Middle East? A colossal failure of American foreign policy.This failure was not the result of bad luck. It was the predictable consequence of the Obama administration’s lack of any kind of coherent grand strategy, a deficit about which more than a few veterans of U.S. foreign policy making have long worried....
The best national-security advisers have combined deep knowledge of international relations with an ability to play the Machiavellian Beltway game, which means competing for the president’s ear against the other would-be players in the policymaking process: not only the defense secretary but also the secretary of state and the head of the Central Intelligence Agency. No one has ever done this better than Henry Kissinger. But the crucial thing about Kissinger as national-security adviser was not the speed with which he learned the dark arts of interdepartmental turf warfare. It was the skill with which he, in partnership with Richard Nixon, forged a grand strategy for the United States at a time of alarming geopolitical instability.
So, what exactly could the US have done in Egypt? Wasn't Vietnam a colossal failure despite the brilliant Machiavellian ways of Kissinger and Nixon that Mr. Ferguson so admires? Isn't Iraq, the brainchild of Cheney-Rumsfeld-Bush, the misguided Bismarckian trio who tried to infuse democracy by war and violence, a continuing mess? (During the Egyptian protest Cheney claimed that Mubarak was not a dictator) Aren't 9 /11, the complicated war in Afghanistan and the tensions in Pakistan the detritus of our clever cold war calculations which have boomeranged and come back to haunt us?
Ferguson is a historian. His specialty is "counterfactual history"- what the world may have been like if powerful individuals had gone down one political path instead of another. Here are some of my own wishful counterfactuals regarding the world and the Islamic middle east and south Asia in particular.
- What if after WWI and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab world had not been carved up like a child's jig-saw puzzle by western colonizers hungry for oil and imperial hegemony, without any regard for regional allegiances, religious sensibilites and tribal identities?
- What would Iran be like today if we hadn't toppled the democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh in favor of the Shah of Iran only to ensure profits for American and British oil companies?
- What if the US had dealt with democratic India after its independence even handedly as a reasonable political partner and not a Soviet stooge to be kept in check by heavily arming successive Pakistani military and civilian dictatorships?
- What if the US had indeed acted as an impartial referee in the Israel-Palestine conflict and not routinely caved in to powerful pro-Israel lobbies at home?
- What if we had controlled our knee jerk fear and pride and tolerated Najibullah's communist rule in Afghanistan instead of collaborating with the savage Taliban to teach a lesson to our then arch enemy, the Soviet Union?
- What if Israel had not supported Hamas / Muslim Brotherhood in order to weaken the secular resistance movement of the PLO?
- And the most controversial counterfactual of all: What if the Soviet Union were still in existence as a counterbalance to the US superpower? Would we have invaded Iraq without just cause, created the deep morass in the Af/Pak region and seen a sharp rise in religious fundamentalism?
Counterfactual historical musings are sometimes as useful as trying to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube. Sure, future policies should be based on 20/20 hindsight but only if we correct past errors and not repeat them. Perhaps Obama's "do nothing but use lofty rhetoric to soothe" is a good enough policy for the bubbling cauldron of the middle east now, where people are focused on toppling corrupt dinosauric leaders and shaping their own future with a semblance of dignity. If the Arab revolution results in putting in place governments we don't like or situations we deem unstable, we will just have to deal with them with caution. If oil prices rise, we will have to tighten our belts. If Islamic parties come in power, we'd better treat them with civility, common sense, resigned humility and not the customary self serving heavy hand, so that they come to see moderation as a better choice than extremism. We must be honest enough to support the principles of fairness, liberty and dignity for the Arab public that we proclaim to uphold for ourselves. Stability may result in time, naturally and organically without our meddling, through the willing participation of the common man on the streets of Tripoli, Manama, Tunis and Cairo. We can only hope but cannot guarantee that stable democratic societies will emerge from the current upheaval. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has its work cut out in the American midwest.
Update (November, 2011): In the mere nine months since I made these observations, much has happened. Tunisia is in the process of establishing a democratic government; Syria finds itself in the midst of a bloody turmoil and President Bashar al-Assad is being roundly condemned by his neighbors; Bahrain and Yemen continue to smolder under the patina of apparent quiet; after four decades of heading a capricious and iron fisted regime Muammar Gaddafi met with a gruesome end and Egypt's Tahrir Square is busy again with teeming crowds of protesters unhappy with the post-Mubarak administration. In the US, popular protests have spread from the Wisconsin state capitol to public parks, college campuses and downtown centers of major cities. Far away from the middle east and Zuccotti Park, another oppressive and secretive dictatorship's downfall may be imminent at long last. In the poverty stricken, ravaged land of Myanmar, democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi's party is set to contest all parliamentary seats in the upcoming election. In early December Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be dispatched there in an effort to help lift the now moldering bamboo curtain that has isolated the Burmese people from the rest of the world for decades.