Saturday, January 29, 2011

Liberty Visits the Middle East

Alexis de Tocqueville famously said that expectation is the spark of revolution. And nothing whips that spark into a raging fire like deep and abiding frustration.

We are watching a revolution explode with amazing swiftness throughout the Arab World right in front of our eyes. We Americans gaze with astonishment and bewilderment at the spectacle unfolding on our TV screens. The once solid Tunisian dictatorship is gone. The 30 year old dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt may well be about to topple. There are protests in Yemen, in Algeria, and in Jordan. Regimes throughout the Middle East are nervously watching events unfold on the Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya networks.

Our network commentariat babbles on about Twitter and Facebook, and the role of Wikileaks in all of this, and pointlessly. The real cause of the turmoil was best expressed in the actions of Mohammed Bouazizi who set himself on fire after his wares were confiscated and he was humiliated by the authorities. His story and his fiery death struck a deep nerve among thousands of people who've endured similar experiences. He was a man who had had enough. People in the Arab World are just tired of being treated like crap. They see a whole new world of possibilities created by technology and increasing global contact opening up before them, and their rulers lower a big iron gate and tell them to put up and shut up, to continue to pray, pay, and obey, and don't ever complain. People see their rulers living high off the hog at their expense while their lives get worse.

This may well be the beginning of a new chapter in Middle East history, but what kind of chapter? Who knows? It's events like this that make all the determinist models of history and all the ideological pronouncements about the inevitable path of history into a clanging cymbal signifying nothing. Did anyone living though the events of 1789 in France really see what was coming next? The Terror? Napoleon? Certainly not. We forget that the founding generations of this country were not exactly certain about the direction or the durability of their revolution. No one had any idea what the USA would eventually become. Did the soldiers who stormed the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in 1917 imagine the rise of Stalin and his genocidal regime? Did those angry frustrated people who lined up to vote for the Nazis in 1932 foresee the ruin that was coming their way? Not likely. I remember how anxious our rulers were when the events of 1989 unfolded in Europe; it was something that they could not control, influence, or predict.
A friend of mine who is a historian once said that you can make all the structural analyses you want of historical events, but in the end, someone had to make a policy decision.

History is always a gamble and a crap-shoot. The future is always a big blank Not Yet that anyone can write anything upon. The most absurd events, a missed appointment, a lost letter, a sudden illness have dramatically altered the course of history. The people in Tunisia and Egypt are rolling the dice and making history. Those angry young people (and not so young people) are now in the driver's seat, and there's nothing the Very Important People can do about it except to watch what happens. Who knows how it will all turn out? Will it be a rerun of Iran? Will we see the emergence of the first genuine Arab democracies? Or will we see something else entirely? We'll know eventually. The protesters and rioters on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Sana, and elsewhere now understand what Hannah Arendt meant when she said that power is just lying around in the streets.

I wonder if we may be watching the beginning of the end of the American Imperium in the Middle East. For almost a century, The USA and the West treated the Middle East as a big dumb oil pump. We propped up dictators and monarchs to keep the lid on all the aspiring nationalisms and brewing conflicts in order to keep the oil flowing. Perhaps the Arab World is so mysterious to us because we largely ignored it for so many decades. Through two World Wars and the Cold War, the West was in the driver's seat of the Middle East setting up compliant client regimes. One of history's greatest ironies is the United States, history's first constitutional democracy, supported some of the world's last absolute monarchies in the Middle East. The Beacon of Liberty whose "banner makes tyranny tremble" eagerly propped up some real tyrants at war with their own people. The list is long; the Shah of Iran, the Hashemite monarchies in Jordan and Iraq, the Saudi monarchy, all the little princedoms that border the Persian Gulf, the Moroccan monarchy, Anwar Sadat, and yes, Saddam Hussein. It seems to me that the Iraq Invasion of 2003 intended to reassert our dominance in the Middle East only diminished our power, and certainly our credibility. Our military is tied down in two unresolvable wars. Our authority and credibility to make any kind of diplomatic initiatives are thoroughly shot because of war crimes and corruption. And now, we can only watch helplessly as the very people who've paid the most for our convenient arrangements take matters into their own hands.


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

And what I thought coming after 1989 was the doom of dozens of petty Dictators who had no longer any Super Powers to black-mail for arms and mone...

How wrong I was!

It has taken until now for some of them to crumble... And good riddance!

JCF said...

The answer to the problems of democracy, is ALWAYS more democracy (which ALWAYS includes universal human rights).

When we fear an outcome like (1978-79) Iran's, what we properly fear is the lack of democracy that resulted from the overthrow of the despotic Shah, not the overthrow itself.

May democracy prevail in Egypt, in the Mideast, EVERYWHERE!

Counterlight said...

Now the commentariat is babbling about gas prices. It's all about us. Some people must be kept poor so that we can stay rich, the old devil's bargain of global capitalism.