A wave of change is sweeping across the Middle East. It is long over due. For decades Arab society has been stunted by oppressive regimes that stifled political and economic progress.
There are gradations of repression. Although autocratic in the decades following independence, Asian Tigers were forced to concentrate on economic development in order to reduce social unrest. This in turn led to the rise of a middle class that eventually began to press for political change. In much of the Middle East oil reduced any pressure for economic development. What middle class did develop was dependent on the political distribution of extractive resources rather than the creation of any value in a competitive environment. Denied economic opportunity or political expression, Arab society often regressed back to extremism. Large numbers of people were attracted to a philosophy which, if pursued consistently, was incapable of sustaining a civilization, let alone creating one. A society governed by the Taliban could never produce the next advancement in telecommunications, medicine, or clean energy. It would have a very difficult time merely maintaining the existing infrastructure. There is no future in this direction, only a past.
Yet suddenly this is all being challenged. And the source of the challenge seems to be first and foremost the young generation for whom the existing regimes save no future. This challenge did not arise out of nothing. The leaders in many countries were in touch with each other and, most interestingly, were in touch with Gene Sharp and his Albert Einstein Institution. Mr. Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation apparently guided many of them. If you are ever looking for examples of the power of individual, ordinary men and their ideas, this is a good one.
What the movement did not contain, and it may become very important, is a clear sense of leadership. Whereas America’s Founding Fathers spend the three years between the Boston Tea Party and the Declaration of Independence organizing and developing strength, this movement burst onto the scene with little preparation or organization. If successful in toppling their respective regimes they will face the harder task of implementing a stable democratic order governed by legal institutions that are capable of encouraging productive economic activity and social peace.
Although perhaps unripe, this movement is of vital importance to the United States. The old regimes, even those friendly to the U.S., were dead ends incapable of building a bridge to the future, even if they had been willing to do so. They were not only dying, they were decaying. Yet movements like the Arab Awakening depend on momentum and hope. The United States has not been terribly helpful in encouraging either. With regard to Libya, it is vitally important that, Gaddafi having been so seriously challenged, be toppled. Although it is far from clear who or what would replace him, Gaddafi was never the safe kook many seemed to view him as being in the last few years. His survival would come as a crushing blow not only to Libyans but to others in the region who hope to overthrow their own dictators.
Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are important for similar reasons. Ultimately, freedom must be earned. Each people, no matter how oppressed, must find the courage and desire to demand their own rights. For now, the citizens of Saudi Arabia have not seen any reason to rise up against their regime. But the citizens of Bahrain have and they have been brutally crushed. They deserve our unqualified support. The founders of this country truly believed “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” You would think that America’s first black president would get this.
Yet we apparently feel that Bahrain’s location as the home of our Navy’s Fifth Fleet puts us on par with a country of less than 300 square miles. There are not a lot of things that justify moving an entire fleet, but this is one of them. The leaders of Bahrain have long oppressed the majority of their people. Rather then reform, they have responded to the latest protests by increasing their oppression. They have no more intention of letting go of their position than a snake does of letting go of its prey.
And yet they must, for it is in the interest of the United States that this momentum be continued on. Already Syria, which has a long history of brutal rule, may be past the tipping point. Although late to start, its citizens have begun turning out on the streets. More important, despite being fired upon, they show up again in even larger numbers. If and when they all show up, the regime is done. You just cannot kill that many people, no matter how hard you try. It it just might be that, given the recent history of the region, given the regime’s vacillation between belated concession and brutal oppression, and given the momentum of the protests, it will not survive much longer.
That leaves Iran as the lone holdout. The elements of dissent are already there and the regime is intensely aware of its vulnerability. If Syria goes, Iran is likely to go as well. Maybe not quickly, surely not peacefully, but go nevertheless. But stalling the momentum in either Libya or Bahrain would give hope to the regimes and instill doubt in their opponents. It would send the signal that, while concessions may be fatal, brutal, sustained, unremitting oppression can break the heart of any opposition without consequences from the rest of the world. And the sad thing is that it probably can, at least in the beginning. The United States must be clear about which side it wants to win.