Looking at the Arab Spring   Leave a comment

In December 2010, a wave of protest swept across North Africa. It was fascinating and terrifying to watch. I minored in political science in college — seemed like a good complement to a journalism degree. In a foreign policy class a professor (who has spent several years in the State Department) detailed for us what World War 3 might look like. It was not that long after the Iranian Revolution — Reagan had been president a couple of years, I think — so his scenario made sense.

A reform movement in the Middle East – He thought it would start in Iraq because it was next door to Iran — would take off. It would seem at first to be a democratic opposition movement to a dictator, but then an Islamic ruler something like Khomeini would arise. The movement would sweep the whole region as Islamists would one by one cast out the stable dictatorships that had been in control. Then the frightening part. Knocked loose of its moorings, this movement would suddenly lurch toward democracy and the Soviet Union would step in to prevent that. The United States would have to intervene to protect the oil supply and World War 3 would be underway. He urged all of us Alaskans to write Congress and beg them to allow more drilling on the North Slope, especially Gull Island which was a very promising (and still untapped) field north of Prudhoe Bay. The key to preventing World War 3 in 1982 was for the United States to become energy independent. (More on that subject some other time).

So, watching the Arab Spring, I doubted it was analogous to the collapse of Communism that everybody was so excited about. I remembered my professor’s warning that a sudden shift toward something looking like democracy would set off a series of events that wouldn’t work out well for anyone.

While the mainstream media celebrated the ouster of Mubarak, I maintained a sense of skepticism even as neoconservatives argued that the pro-democracy protests in Egypt and elsewhere were a triumph of Bush’s “freedom agenda” and more liberal forces demanded free elections, individual liberty, free press, religious freed, women’s rights, and free markets from the regions authoritarian monarchies. I just didn’t think spring was in the air.

Alaskans are used to false springs followed by fatal late winter.

As much as western liberals have been critical of autocrats like Murbarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, we might as well be honest that these dictators provided stability, protected the rights of women and religious minorities, and encouraged reforms of socialist economies, which opened these countries up to foreign investment and new ideas, including liberty. The Islamist parties that replaced them have extended the influence of a very narrow view of Islam, posing a threat to secular men and women. The Muslim Brotherhood may not be socialist, but they are uninterested in free market principles such as entrepreneurship and they have no intention of enabling challenges to the leadership of the “democracy” movement.

The Arab Spring has almost nothing to do with the spread of liberal (as in liberty) democracy. The values of Islam are mostly incompatible with individual rights, religious freedom and women’s rights and all the free elections in the world cannot change that. When the people vote for tyranny, it is not a move toward liberty.

Yes, Turkey’s Islamist movement led to a fairly democratic system with free markets, but that is not necessarily applicable to Egypt or Syria. Turkey is a unique historical and cultural setting. Other Islamic societies have different civilizations and may not be able to replicate the same effects. Mexico used the US Constitution almost exactly when establishing its republic. Both countries have Christian majorities. So why are they so different?

Christian communities in the Arab world now feel besieged and many thousands are fleeing to the West, depriving these societies of their less radicalized, more Western-thinking populations. These counties are regressing in social-economic development. That’s the bad news. US influence in the region is declining as a result of the fall of pro-American regimes. And, I think that’s a good thing.

The United States is constrained by diminishing economic and military power. Moreover, our policymakers seem flummoxed to define US interests in the national, ethnic and religious interests of the constantly shifting landscape. When people call for Washington to “do something” to help this group or that one, I think “NO!” We risk getting drawn into a conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that will not work out well for any of us.

If we were consistent with our founding principles, we’d back off. We’d recognize that these are not democratic-leaning movements and that democratic elections installing tyrannical oligarchies is not self-government. Yes, we have commercial interests in the Middle East. It’s really too bad that we have neglected the full development of domestic energy sources, but we at least have domestic energy sources to tap. Maybe we should get started rather than risk our commercial enterprises drawing us into a war there is no way of winning … or even picking the principled side.

The current upheaval in the Middle East will eventually run its course. How it will turn out — I don’t know. The United States can’t really do much to determine the political direction of the region. And, at this point, since it doesn’t appear to be a liberty movement, we shouldn’t try. We’ve been here before — when we would prop up dictators who supported the US (so long as the US gave them lots of money) and how did that work out for us? Right! Hold that thought!

Now let’s see if our leaders are as sensible as a woman living in Alaska.

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