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« Cairo in Madison | Main | 3 QD Prize in Arts & Literature, 2011 »

February 23, 2011


Excellent post.

Why do all commentators of various stripes agonize over Obama's words and lack of 'deeds'? What's wrong with just words that soothe and maybe, just maybe, inspire? Even if one doesn't want to credit Obama with any input into what went on in Tunisia and Egypt, is it possible that he is merely a catalyst - a facilitator, without actually participating actively in the 'chemical' reaction stirred up by other initiating factors?
Ferguson is indulging in the 'woe is us' breastbeating, angry that the colonizing narrative of Western democracy enlightening the Arab world is slipping away into the dustbin of history, including a great many of his pet theories on how the world can and should work.
It may be messy, but if and when democracy rises in Tunisia, Egypt, maybe even Libya, it will be a home-grown variety, with all the steps forward and backward like a wobbly toddler learning to walk for the first time. There will be falls, stumbles. But some day, the walk will turn into a confident run.

Well said Ruchira! I agree with everything you have written here. I am also tired of commentators, like the former National Security chief Brzenski go on about how in Egypt there is no one from the opposition who is "able enough" to head the government there. Interesting and annoying how commentators use the "weak opposition" line to support what might be (read: are) their own interests.

I remain optimistic re: the inquilaabs in the "Middle East" and North Africa.

What a wonderful essay. I too find the president to be justified in standing back a bit -- it's hardly the easy or the wimpy thing to do, refraining from rushing to take sides in someone else's struggle. For one thing, it enhances the US appearance of being a fair dealer (let other countries do it their way, okay?), and repairs our image as an over-hasty bully -- to the extent it can be repaired in the short term. After eight years of W, Niall Ferguson is bitching about caution?

Well said, Ruchira. I also think it's foolish to base judgments on a quick reading of public diplomacy. I'm all for transparency, but when we're suddenly challenged to turn the aging battleship that is American foreign policy around on a dime, I certainly hope that Obama and the State Dept. are very busy communicating on many more fronts, trying many more angles, than we are privy to.

Post World War II the US set itself against Asian nationalism. It was one thing to distrust Mao and Ho, but even people like Jawaharlal Nehru, who was a mild socialist, were distrusted. In part this was at the instigation of Britain, and in part because of the self-perceived interests of a world power which meant that there could be no friends in the world, only surrogates. This, in fact, is the lesson that emerges from the different kinds of relations the US had with France and UK in the 1950-1990 period.

Counterfactual history is not toothpaste. It's laugh out loud absurdity. Ferguson's model is Krok & Loon's The American Spectacle: 1492 to the Present, a high school history textbook parody included in the National Lampoon's 1964 High School Yearbook. Chapter 1 concludes with review questions, Mastering What You Have Learned. The Brain Teaser: What do you think the outcome of the Revolutionary War would have been if George Washington had been born a horse?

If Ferguson is a historian, George Washington was a horse. He doesn't know what it means for a strategy to be coherent, let alone grand.

Why must the west do anything at all? These people should settle their own polity without interference and without regard to the strategic interests of western oligarchies. As they, in fact, are. The basis for democracy is the sovereign will of the people, not the economic and military interests of the US administration and congress.

Awesome post. First time I am coming here, and am throughly impressed.

@Sujatha - In my opinion, Obama has done the bravest thing possible, by just letting things happen. This has allowed both the Tunisian, and Egyptian people to have complete ownership of their revolutions. Their stake in the future of the country is now 100%. If the US had involved itself (and the external, internal, and political pressure on Obama to do so was tremendous), the value of these uprisings would have been completely diluted, since they would have been tainted by the presence of the foreign hand, destroying their indigenous nature.

@Dean - Your characterization of Ferguson is brilliant. The guy is a fool extraordinaire. Its amazing that someone like this can get published in supposedly respectable journals and newspapers.

Right on most counts. But the Taliban were not the ones with whom the US collaborated to defeat the USSR. They had very little to do with the Afghan people's war against the Soviet Union. They grew up in the refugee camps & madrasses of the Pakistan border region, finding common cause with the radical Islamic elements of the Mujahideen in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal. Our disinterest after this withdrawal certainly contributed to their eventual ganing the upper hand against the other Muj groups and getting rid of Najibullah.

Indeed, the motley crowd we armed and trained with the help of the Pakistani army to foment the rebellion against the USSR was collectively known as the Mujahideens / Mujahedins. After the Soviets retreated, the group splintered across ethnic backgrounds. The Arab fighters came to coalesce as Al Qaida under the leadership of Bin Laden. Afghan Mujahedins became the Taliban and formed the government in Afghanistan with ex-Mujahedins like Mulla Omar at the helm. The two groups remained on the same page philosophically and mutually dependent strategically. The Arabs wielded considerable power behind the scenes in the newly "liberated" Taliban ruled "Islamic Republic of Afghanistan." And yes, the refugee camps in the Af/Pak border region were (and continue to be) a breeding and recruiting ground for both organizations.

I guess the point I was making is that we made the "Taliban" possible by aiding, abetting and creating their past Mujahedin avatars.

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