By lex, on January 29th, 2011
There being Egypt, and what it is? Ain’t exactly clear.
Nevertheless, former George W. Bush cabinet member Elliot Abrams is waving the red flag in front of the New Accepted Wisdom on the Middle East and blames Bush – mostly for being right:
“Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even to have a choice in the matter?”
The massive and violent demonstrations underway in Egypt, the smaller ones in Jordan and Yemen, and the recent revolt in Tunisia that inspired those events, have affirmed that the answer is no and are exploding, once and for all, the myth of Arab exceptionalism. Arab nations, too, yearn to throw off the secret police, to read a newspaper that the Ministry of Information has not censored and to vote in free elections.
And he hasn’t much patience for the Realpolitik of W’s successor:
This has been the greatest failure of policy and imagination in the administration’s approach: Looking at the world map, it sees states and their rulers, but has forgotten the millions of people suffering under and beginning to rebel against those rulers. “Engagement” has not been the problem, but rather the administration’s insistence on engaging with regimes rather than with the people trying to survive under them.
All of this brings the predictable partisan reaction:
For those of us who care about accuracy, it’s worth pointing out that way back in the halcyon days of the neocon dream in 2002, their whacked-out vision of the Middle East included Egypt as the ultimate “prize” in a sweeping redefinition of the region that would somehow make it safe for Israel to pursue its own maximalist fantasies.
Didja follow all that? What’s going on in Egypt right now has something to do with the Joooos. And maximalism.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, Heather Hurlburt usefully reminds us that not everything in the wider world has to do with US foreign policy preferences and the internal political divisions over them. In other words, it is not – as much as it pains us to say it – always about us:
America can’t stop this revolt. Commentators across the political spectrum can’t seem to keep themselves from implying that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, by their choice of adjectives, can “save” President Mubarak. We must disabuse ourselves of the idea that we can determine how this turns out. As Michael Hanna has written on Democracy Arsenal, this is less about the state of our union than “the tattered state of their unions.” We can, however, exert some control over whether we are perceived by the citizenry in Egypt and elsewhere as part of the solution. Our diplomats and spokespeople are now at pains to prove, in real time, that when we talk about stability, we mean it in a way that favors the governed, and not just the governors.
Anyone who has paid any attention to what’s left of the Ottoman Empire since it faded into dust has realized that the region remains afflicted to a greater or lesser degree by backwardness, economic dysfunction, corruption and political malaise. In fact, apart from Africa, scourged with its own unique diseases, no other region of the world so typifies these characteristics. The question of “what went wrong” to what had- not so very long ago – been one of the world’s most successfully aggressive empires has been asked and (mostly) answered: It will not do for a society desiring the fruits of modernity to, 1) close its mind to science and philosophy, even if it leads in uncongenial directions, 2) idle half its intellectual capital.
Here, from an admittedly Orientalist point of view, is a ridiculously brief history of the last 1400 years or so:
- Who are you lot, and will you mind removing that spear from my side, it hurts.
- I’ll bash you for that, and take back the Holy Land as well.
- Fine then, have it. But I wouldn’t mind a bit of that algebra and medical science, if it’s all right.
- More Holy Land, please and if you don’t like it we’ll see you off.
- Fine then, have it.
- Wait, the Mediterranean is our ocean.
- Fine, have half.
- Wait, Constantinople is the capital of our
- Fine, have it. (We need bigger ships.)
- It’s called “Spain,” not “al Andalus.” And what are you still doing here? Off you go.
- Wait, Vienna is a capital of our And no, you can’t have it. No matter how many times you ask.
- (Some of those big cannon would go well aboard those ships, don’t you think?)
- We’d like the Med back, and are all too willing to take it – see those ships, and all those cannon? There’s a good culture.
- My name is Napoleon. Lovely place you have here, Egypt.
- Fine, have it back, courtesy of La perfide Albion. You couldn’t have done it by yourself, you know.
- Train your military? Certainly, why not? We’re dreadfully good at industrial scale slaughter; it takes practice. And industry. We’ve got both.
- Fight your military? Certainly, why not? Especially when you’re going to ally yourselves with the Hun.
- Rather a mess you left behind, old boy. Shall we help you sort it out?
- What’s this, oil? Fascinating.
- We’ve invented fascism: Have some!
- Sorry about that.
- We’re busy among ourselves just now, can’t it wait?
- What a bother, you lot. Can’t you see we’re tired?
- Just call that fellow over there “king,” and we’ll be on our way. Do write.
- We’ve invented socialism: Have some!
- Sorry about that.
- I know you’re rather a mess, but then you always were. Want some expertise to get that oil out of the ground? There’s money in it. Win-win.
- I really wish you wouldn’t treat your people that way. More tea?
- I REALLY wish you wouldn’t treat our people that way. Stand by for a case of the ass.
- With nation building.
- Jesus CHRIST, this is hard!
All caught up.
The question of course, is what comes next?
The whole world, Araby included, has seen that pan-anything nationalism doesn’t work. The whole world, including Araby, has seen that extreme political ideologies don’t work. We are witnessing the dual failures of tyrannic kleptocracy and unrefreshed, millenarian religious zealotry. We have witnessed – if not the failure – than the extremely expensive and time-consuming inutility of imposing alien concepts and institutions (rule-of-law, an independent judiciary, a free press, democracy) by external military force.
We’ve always known in modern times that the Middle East was a mess. But thinking it hopeless, we made accommodations with hopelessness, allowing the fatalism of the region to rub off on us. But as George W. Bush said, that got us nowhere:
“Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export.”
When everything else has failed, why not try something new?
Maybe it’s as simple as this for a region that, despite its manifest deficiencies, retains a fierce cultural pride: Maybe we can’t show it to them, or teach it to them. Maybe we can’t shove it down their throats. But maybe – just maybe – they can do it for themselves, if we just get out of their way and stop coddling prickly “friends”. We could hope things work out better than they have heretofore. We probably ought to – the only thing that pessimism saves us from is disappointment, and we’ve got plenty of that already.
Meanwhile, we keep the powder dry.