Watching the dominoes fall in the Middle East

The international news lately has been a wild ride, hasn’t it?

First, it was the start of what looks to be a successful (and peaceful) partitioning of Sudan, with the national referendum on the separation of the largely African and Christian/animist southern part from the largely Arab and Muslim northern part. Then came the protests in Tunisia, which led to the overthrow of dictator Zine el Abidine ben Ali.  This in turn inspired dissidents in Egypt to rise up and (with the help of a sympathetic military) push out their longtime despot, Hosni Mubarak.  And now demonstrations (and more) have risen in Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria, Iran, Morocco and — most notably and bloodily — Libya.

The whole series of events is reminiscent to me of similar occurrences in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.  I was in college at the time, minoring in political science no less, and there was an electricity in the air as my fellow students and I read about and watched the collapse of Communist rule in one country after another.  In 1990 I, along with many others from my soon-to-be-alma mater (University of the Pacific), played representatives of the U.S.S.R. at an intermural Model United Nations conference in southern California.  Later that year, I took a class entitled “Soviet and East European Politics.”  And less than two years later, there was no longer a U.S.S.R. or any Soviets — the whole Cold War map I’d grown up with had been redrawn, and a wind of freedom was sweeping through a big chunk in the world.  So, seeing something like that happen again, this time in North Africa and the Middle East, is really exciting.  And I’m optimistic.

Well, cautiously optimistic …

That optimism has stuck with me through each news report.  The countries of the Arab world have historically been run largely by military dictators or iron-fisted monarchies, and have had horrendous human rights records.  In those places, anyone questioning the government’s actions usually ends up facing long jail terms if not immediate death.  Women are often treated as little more than property, and not always valuable property either.  (This is not necessarily attributable to the tenets of Islam — predominately Muslim countries outside the region, such as Indonesia and Bangladesh, have had women in high leadership posts.)  And freedom of the press, assembly and religion are severely restricted; most (if not all) Arab countries continue to persecute journalists, human rights workers and people of various religious persuasions, including whatever Muslim sects are in the current regimes’ doghouses.  There isn’t a self-appointed leader in the entire region that I (or I suspect, said leaders’ own citizens) will be sorry to see go.

So I think all the protests and the toppling of dictators is wonderful.  If.

You probably know where I’m going with this.  If the overthrow of the repressive regimes leads to the establishment of democratic, representative, non-repressive regimes.  If they lead to women and non-Muslims being given all the rights of citizenship.  If they result in a free press, voting rights, and allowing people to read, write, think and worship however they want, so long as no one else is hurt.  If the final outcome is true freedom, and not a new form of slavery.  Because there’s no guarantee.

In my life, I’ve witnessed two notably ruthless Middle Eastern dictators getting the push.  In 1979 Shah Reza Pahlavi, the U.S.-supported overlord of Iran, was forced out, and replaced by Ruhollah Khomeini, who decided to reshape his country in the image of his own marginal and twisted view of Islam.  Needless to say, it hasn’t been an improvement — not for the Iranian people, and not for the region.  In 2003 Saddam Hussein, the formerly-U.S.-supported dictator of Iraq, was deposed by a U.S.-led invasion of the country, and while he and his cronies have been replaced by what at least resembles a democratic government, it’s a far-from-stable situation and the jury is still out.  (And yes, the United States was a longtime supporter of Hussein’s rule, trying to use him as a bulwark against Khomeini and Iran, just as we’d used Pahlavi, among others, as a bulwark against the Soviets.  If the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” school of diplomacy isn’t thoroughly discredited by now, it bloody well should be!)

And even with the fall of the Iron Curtain, things haven’t all been rosy.  Stalin-style cult-of-personality dictatorships are in place in about half of the former Soviet republics; for every Lithuania, there’s an Uzbekistan.  Yugoslavia decomposed in a long series of civil wars that left behind seven battle-scarred mini-states.  And even the former Communist countries that transitioned the best to free elections and capitalism had their own issues — witness the split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, or the economic hurdles of German reunification.

The point is that getting rid of the dictator is only step one, just like when you’re sprucing up your lawn, pulling the weeds is step one.  Then you’ve got to sow some good seed — and take steps to keep the weeds from coming back.  If you don’t, you’re pretty much back where you started.

The big weed, in this instance, is Islamist movements who want to impose a radical (and to most Muslims, heretical) version of sharia law on pretty much everything and everyone in sight.  The Taliban in Afghanistan are one such group, as is al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden’s gang of happy thugs.  Most of them trace their views back to Sayyid Qutb, whose writings in the 1950s and 1960s advocated the replacement of all governments and religious leadership with a one-world regime based on his own style of purified Islam (sort of a United Nations of Hyper-Taliban).  Qutb was from Egypt (he was hanged there in 1966), and the organization he was part of, the Muslim Brotherhood, is considered to be Egypt’s largest opposition group.  Apparently, they have moderated their stance over the last 45 years, but that’s the shadow that hangs over the current wave of revolutions: the specters of Qutb, Khomeini and bin Laden.

I think you can understand my caution.  And it’s with that in mind that I say the United States needs to be involved in this — not overthrowing the despots, as in Iraq, but giving moral support to those citizens working to overthrow the despots.  And, most importantly, giving technical as well as moral support to those same citizens once the despot is gone.

Looking back, what rankles me most about Ruhollah Khomeini is that his rule never had to happen.  The United States, the world’s longest-standing democracy, backed the dictator Pahlavi against his own people.  So when the people gave Pahlavi the left foot of fellowship, the U.S. was in no position to help the Iranians toward a more moderate form of government.  Khomeini, in exile in France, was able to whip home and fill the power vacuum, and the rest is sad history.  (Especially for the Iranians.)  Having blown that opportunity, we’ve spent the last generation implementing a sort of “containment” policy with Iran, to the point that we have troops in over half the countries surrounding it — and, as a side effect, causing the already paranoid group of mullahs running Iran to justify their paranoia.  (Oh, that containment policy — the Cold War relic that got us mired in Korea, Vietnam and dozens of other hot spots around the world.  Thanks a crap of a lot, George Kennan!)

We don’t want this to happen again, do we?  So needless to say, I started getting nervous when President Obama was slow to support those protesting against Egyptian President-For-Ever Mubarak, another tyrant long propped up by American support.  (See a familiar pattern emerging?)

My opinion: the U.S. government needs to take a two-pronged approach to the situation in the Middle East:

  1. Come out publicly in favor of any revolt against an oppressive regime, and declare our hope for the acknowledgment and protection of basic human rights.  If said revolt succeeds, offer whatever support and advice we can to help the new rulers establish a constitution guaranteeing representative government, diversify their economy (which in most cases are built almost solely on one product — oil — and are thus more vulnerable to being controlled by one small clique of fat-cats), and establish a recognition of human rights and respect for minorities.  After all, that’s what we’ve been working on here since the 18th century; we’re not perfect, but we have experience.
  2. STOP GIVING SUPPORT TO DESPOTS.  Too many of the current problems in the region have been caused by the willingness of the U.S. (and Western Europe; they deserve a share of the blame) to give aid and comfort to any despotic yahoo who’s working in our short-term interests.  We were supposed to be the “arsenal of democracy” — why did we spend decades supporting anti-democrats like Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore … I’ll stop there, but it’s a long, sordid list.  And it includes (as mentioned before) Pahlavi, Hussein and Mubarak.

Point two is key — if we say we support democracy while giving cash and arms to those who crush it, why should any opposition movement trust us, ever?  But if we put our money where our mouth is … well, let me give you a “what if.”  Saudi Arabia is a longtime U.S. ally — we’re always sending them fighter jets, training their troops, protecting their borders, stuff like that.  They’re also perpetually near the top of human rights organizations’ lists of the worst offenders.  What if Obama told the Saudi monarchy tomorrow, “look, this has gone far enough — either improve your treatment of your citizens, not to mention foreign visitors to your country, and start instituting democratic reforms, or we start turning off the tap.  No more shiny new planes, no more food aid, and we stop buying your oil and just get more from Mexico instead.  You don’t have to liberalize, but then we don’t have to subsidize your disregard for what we hold most dear.  It’s your call, homey”?

Well, they might say “fine” and run to the Chinese, who care as much about human rights as your toddler does about nutrition, but that’s still a step down in terms of quality of arms and amounts of ready coin.  Same with Russia, only the step’s even bigger.  (“Russian engineering” is almost a contradiction in terms.)  Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is the Islamists’ #1 target (being the home of Mecca and Medina, the holiest sites in Islam), and have their own homegrown radicals to deal with — bin Laden himself is a Saudi trust-fund baby — so any instability scares the House of Saud even more than it does us.  My sneaking suspicion is that if we were to offer that choice to King Abdullah (or whoever’s running the country, Abdullah being 86 and in failing health) and at least be nice about it, he’ll very much want to at least consider it.

And regardless, our government should start thinking along those lines.  If we say we want democracy, we need to act like it.  The world — especially the protesters in the Middle East — is watching.

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One Response to Watching the dominoes fall in the Middle East

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