March 05, 2011

Thinking Over the Horizon About the Arab Revolts

The Arab world has been engulfed in unrest for roughly a month now. As the situation unfolds, Western positions on the matter are taking shape. Non-intervention, cautious statements, and measured efforts at protecting our assets appear to be the rule of the day.

These are the politics of status quo; attempting not to position ourselves against Arab democrats, while also not removing our support for the dictatorships they oppose. Sadly these politics of caution and care also ensure that we harm our interests in the future by priotizing the short-term.

Should dictators win the majority of these conflicts, they will be bitter that their international backers did not lend a helping hand. Worst yet, if the democrats win - and we should hope so - they will rightly feel that when push came to shove, we did not act upon our oh-so-stated ideals of human dignity and democracy.

When wars end, generals do not retire. They are voted into office. Those who fought are celebrated and lead their nations into peace. Those who were recalcitrant to fight, or worst yet were hedging their bets against their peers, are cast out of the new order. In '79 the US found itself on the wrong side of a national revolution in Iran. That guaranteed an anti-American slant to whatever came next. We do NOT want that to happen all over the Middle East. We want to actively support a side, and assist them in organizing themselves. Most notably because most of these revolutions do not have coherent structures and power centers. This power vacuum in the middle of temporarily galvanized societies means that if the West does not step in, someone else will. Do we want China to come accross as an agent of democratic change in oil producing countries? Or more likely, do we want Islamic elements of those societies (who represent the only organized civil society groups) to effectively carry the flag of the oppressed? What an ironic situation that would be.

These words are not meant to be alarmist. 2011 is not 1979, and Egypt is not Iran. But where water does not flow, air will. We cannot afford to be left out of this historic event. The Arab world is finally following in our democratic footsteps. Why on earth would we not want to be a part of this?

The cautious analysts would tell us that there is a simple answer: We do not want to shake the board on these late turns of the Great Game. We have established interests in these societies, and risking everything means, well, risking everything.

With all due respect, I oppose these opinions. Our civilization has a powerful political tradition of democratic government and human rights. These are inextricably linked to our legitimacy throughout the world. We cannot afford to be hypocrites in the eyes of those who wish to emulate our institutions. We must cheer them on, then become eager mentors as they embark on the perilous road to democracy.

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