I wanted to respond to Sobek’s post on the recent troubles in North Africa and elsewhere. But I didn’t want to post such a long screed at Michael’s place and abuse his hospitality, so I’ll do it here.
Sobek hit on some very important things for us to keep in mind, things we should watch.
The biggest problem is the rule of unintended consequences. He demonstrated this beautifully by illustrating the example of the so-called Islamic Revolution. It was, in reality, more of an anti-Shah revolt which, thanks to the trickery and manipulation of the theocrats-wannabe, turned into an Islamic revolution.
Sobek also demonstrated that “democracy” is not always, in an of itself, a good thing. (I put that in quotes because in many of these countries, democracy isn’t about representative government as much as it is about using a system to usurp power.) I remember when the West put immense pressure on President General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan to open the doors of democracy in Pakistan when he was the autocrat. He gave in. The result? Since then until 2008, a very powerful and influential force was the Muttahidah Majlis-e Amal, a then new confederation of Islamist parties. Before Musharraf’s opening of the doors of democracy, religious parties had almost no influence in the political system. Thanks to the West, they then became a major power.
The situation of our relations with the Arab countries is interesting. Thanks to American aid and support, Egypt helped keep the peace somewhat in the region by playing nice (for the most part) with Israel. Mubarak’s successor will continue that. We don’t know about whoever else may sit in that seat of power.
One of the most inconvenient facts has been that many of these countries remain extremely unstable unless they’re ruled by an autocrat. We actually see this clearly in Pakistan: when a general is in charge as a general, there’s a large amount of stability and even security. It also becomes possible for us to gain their cooperation. This is because the military-political complex is beholden to one entity: the general in power. But when civilians are in charge (or the general wants to be a civilian) there’s immense instability because there are various competing entities vying for power and influence. The major sin of Pervez Musharraf is that he wanted to be a politician. That is not what would have served Pakistan best. It needed a firm hand. And still does. I would not lament seeing another military coup to oust the jokers in power at the moment.
This much is true: an unstable Egypt, or a hostile Egypt, would be catastrophic. Not just bad or inconvenient: it would be a catastrophe of immense proportions. Egypt is the hub of the modern Arab world. What happens in Egypt affects the rest of the Arab world.
This is not to say America should intervene on any level, covert or overt, to ensure a pro-Western autocrat is in power. Why? What’s good for the goose is good for a gander.
Let me explain. Wikileaks and Tunisia have the potential of launching a widespread revolution in the political thinking and expectations of the Arab peoples. The Liberation of Iraq was disastrous for Arab regimes: it proved that Arab regimes were not immune, that if they crossed The United States, they could be toppled by The United States even in the face of immense opposition from allies. The Liberation of Iraq worked extremely well to enhance America’s prestige (as defined in international relations). But the current movement is quite different. Under the old understanding, what Arab autocrats expected is that if one Arab autocrat upset America, America will overthrow him and replace him with another – either a loyal autocrat or a government that will listen to America. Now, it looks like no autocrat of any stripe can survive if the people don’t will it. This is bad for American interests because there is no way we can know whether a popularly elected or installed government will survive the vicissitudes of political power or whether it will oppose American interests. So, what we think makes bad autocrats vulnerable also makes pro-Western autocrats vulnerable. None of our allies are safe.
And sometimes, it takes an autocrat to defend American interests. Egypt’s pro-Israel policy, for example, goes completely against what the people want and feel. If the Egyptian government were to represent the people’s will and implement the people’s will as policy, it would not be pro-Israel or pro-American. Quite the opposite, really. But an autocrat overrules his people’s opinions and implements his will as the state’s will.
This makes me sound like quite the opponent of democracy. I am not against democracy. But what tends to crop up in that part of the world is not democracy. Do not be fooled: just because they call it democracy or is motivated by the people, does not make it a democracy. Mobocracy is more like it. In any case, Arab-style “democracy” tends to be very messy and extremely unstable.
I don’t like to bring tales of sorrow without indicating what we can do.
What we can do is keep a very close eye on what is happening in the Arab world. We should not rush to judgment – for or against – on what is happening until things settle down. And we should expect that maybe things will not settle down. (Frankly, the more internal factions are fighting each other, the less they will target us or our interests.) We may want to rethink our involvement in propping or bringing down governments in that region. We may set up a regime that will end up biting us, or we may end up bringing down a regime that, in due time, might have served our interests. We don’t know. So better to let things play out and play accordingly.
But perhaps the best thing is to begin to build up our defenses. We should be more prepared for what may come. We should begin to wean ourselves off of our allies, to prepare for the possibility that they may fall. This requires a change of attitude and thinking on our part. We need to put America first, and not just a primus inter pares: we need to protect American interests by building up America and not try to make friends with all of the world. Speak softly but carry a big stick: we will discover that more people will respect us because of our big stick, not soft words.
Arabs mock us because our weakness. But we are not weak, we’re just naive. Time to grow up.