Back in 2011 the Arab world started a process of change that was long overdue, and hindered by the way the US and oil rich Arab states had helped keep in place obsolete political structures that embraced authoritarianism, nepotism, corruption, and brutality. While some cynically defended such support as being “in our interests” – Mubarak may be a son of a bitch, but he’s friendly to us – that is an incredibly short sighted and naive world view.
There is no way the Arab world of the late 20th Century could be reproduced well into the 21st Century. Globalization, changing world dynamics, and the information revolution meant that anachronistic regimes had to perish. To persist they’d have to engage in increasingly brutal measures, such as those being undertaken by Assad in Syria. The world is changing, including the Mideast.
Yet others took an equally naive view in thinking change would be easy. To expect a country that has been ruled by authoritarian means for decades, built on centuries of the brutal Ottoman dictatorship, to change to a modern democracy in a short period of time would be a pipe dream. The world doesn’t work that way.
The option was never democracy or dictatorship, it was an increasingly brutal dictatorship vs. a slow difficult decades long process of modernization and change. Consider how long it took the US to build a democracy of the kind we expect others to leap to overnight. We had slavery for 80 years, women couldn’t vote for 120. We only changed as fast as our culture changed, we didn’t have 1813 America being pressured to create institutions acceptable to 2013 America!
That said, it won’t take that long for the Arab world to change. Globalization is forcing an increased pace of change, within a generation or two I expect a modernized yet still Islamic and culturally unique Mideast. Yet that means there is likely to be 20 to 40 years of continued flux, perhaps with terrorism, extremism, and conflict.
That’s how the world changes. As much as I prefer peace, would love it if we’d all just understand each others’ perspectives and empathize, power is a corrupting drug. Power is to the political system what cocaine is to an individual’s system. It creates a belief in ones’ invincibility and a willingness to take absurd chances and not recognize ones’ own limitations.
Assad and his cadre in Syria are playing that game, unable to comprehend that the power they enjoy can dissipate in a moment. Mubarak learned that lesson, and though he may be under House arrest rather than in prison, it’s unlikely that the process of change will go backwards.
So for all those whiny pundits who think that somehow problems in Egypt are the fault of America (or in the case of manythe right, all the world’s problems can be laid at Obama’s feet), it’s time to relax. The dynamic underway in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world is in its early stages. We can’t and shouldn’t yearn for a return to anachronistic dictatorial thugs. We shouldn’t pick sides or choose enemies, but instead put forth principles we’ll support.
Fifty years ago Martin Luther King gave his historic “I have a Dream” speech, an event being celebrated this weekend. Let’s not just keep that dream as a unique part of the American past, but find a way to communicate the principles involved into foreign policy. With globalization, it’s no longer a Realpolitik world of myopic self interest without regards to morality and principle. Principles matter, and its our principles, not our guns, that will provide positive influence on others.