Archive for category Islam

Where is the Mideast Revolt leading?

Tunisia and Egypt are looking like success stories early on.   Libya is a mess.   Syria looks like it could be the next to fall.  Pressure in Iran is growing, and the small statelets of Bahrain and Yemen face on going unrest.  Yemen’s President Abdullah Saleh has already said he’s stepping down, but unrest continues.    This will take awhile to play itself out, and before it’s over even Saudi Arabia is likely to experience regime change.

All of this is good news in the sense that the old order was obsolete and doomed to fall.   The Arab people have been victims of governments bolstered by oil hungry powers willing to enable corrupt and ruthless tyrants in exchange for their black gold.   That can’t last forever, and the mix of the information revolution and demography have pushed the region to the tipping point and I suspect there is no going back.   In 1982 Assad could kill tens of thousands to maintain authority, but now images and angry flow across the country and world in a way that undermines the capacity for dictators to engage in the most severe atrocities.

The bad news, of course, is that the region does not have a tradition of stable democracy, and if anything the authoritarian rule of recent years has reinforced the tradition of ruthless power politics inherited from the Ottomans.   And while Turkey had Attaturk, leadership in the Arab world is diffuse.    So where will this unrest lead?

1.  Those who fear too much, and those who hope too much are probably wrong.    One view is that this will be a peoples’ revolt leading to stable modern democracies throughout the region.   Another view is that al qaeda and Islamic extremists will use this to grab power and that this will be a victory for Islamic extremism.    Both views are naive.   The former is naive about the difficulty in having a culture shift from pre-modern practices to a functioning democracy, the latter naively fears a force that does not have the hearts and minds of the people of the region.   Some people are very comfortable fearing Islam and thus enjoy imagining it as an existential threat.

2.  Iran is the most likely to succeed.   Some might think it odd that the one theocracy is most likely to end up with a modern democracy, but Iran is already half way there, with a culture more modern and with less of a tradition of ruthless oppression than the states of the Arab world.   Iran (which is not Arab) was never part of the Ottoman Empire, and had a period of secularization under the Shah.   It was a modernization done too quickly, too ruthlessly and with too little respect for existing traditions, but it has left its mark.   The Shah failed where Attaturk succeeded because he never had Attaturk’s popularity and was seduced by the West to serve as a pawn in the Cold War and energy games.    This made him feel comfortable with personal power, and focused less on his country than his own rule.

But anyone watching the 2009 protests know that the Iranian people want change.  Anyone who has followed the history of post-revolutionary Iran know that modernization has been continuing despite theocratic rule, and that democratic elections do take place, and are hotly contested.  The Guardian Council has been keen to avoid pushing the public too hard, and has shown a capacity in the past to reform.   At some point an internal coup could push less conservative clerics to the top and usher in a transition that could be gradual and popular.   An Islamic democracy may not be like a western democracy, but it can be truly democratic.  Iran may be closer to that point than a lot of people think, and the changes now are more threatening to Iran’s leaders than people realize.

3.  This process will take decades with numerous ups and downs.  Gaddafi could leave Libya tomorrow, Syria’s government could fall, or Gaddafi could hang on for years and the son of Assad could channel his father’s ruthlessness in asserting Baath party control.  Likely there will be dramatic successes like Egypt’s and major disappointments.   Authoritarian regimes will cling to power as long as they think they can win– and most remain in denial of the forces conspiring against them.

This means that it will be a long time before we can truly judge the efficacy of NATO policy, the UN or the US.   It also suggests that oil price increases will continue, forcing us to move more quickly on alternative energy sources, as well as developing domestic oil and natural gas (especially from shale natural gas fields — a potentially very rich source).   It also means that those who espouse hope and those who convey fear will each find a lot of evidence for their beliefs.   You can see that in Egypt where both sides find ample evidence to prove that their hopes/fears are legitimate.

Standing back, though, one has to recognize that the old corrupt authoritarian tyrannies of the Arab world have to go.   No transition will be smooth.  Tunisia and Egypt are doing probably as well as one could hope for, but expect controversy and messy situations in each country for years.   Look at how Nigeria is 12 years into its 3rd Republic and elections are still marked with charges of rigging and some post voting unrest.   These transitions take time.   If the transitions going well take time with numerous ups and downs, places like Libya and Saudi Arabia face the potential that their transitions could take over a generation.   Once the Saudi government starts to lose control, oil crises will be likely.   It will be tempting to think there is something we can do to “fix” things:   Either prop up the old tyrants or intervene to create a new democracy.

The former would be a mistakes because the tyrants are being overthrown by their own people thanks to the force of the information revolution and ideas imported from the West.   It would be wrong to help the dictators stay in power, and ultimately self-defeating.   They will fall, and we don’t want to be seen as being on their side.  The latter simply is beyond our capacity.   We’ve seen that in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Libya is a fresh example.  Libya may be a more realistic way to help — give assistance to indigenous freedom fighters — but it risks sucking us in to a difficult long term quagmire which will likely lack closure.   Even after Gaddafi goes it will be a long time before the transition is complete.

In short, we are watching a major historical event, the start of a transformation of the Arab world away from authoritarian corruption towards modern democracy.   It won’t be the same as the West, but it’s almost certainly not likely to revert to Islamic extremism.   It’s a new era, and we need to have 21st century thinking.   Perhaps the most dangerous thing to do is look at all this through 20th century political perspectives.   A world in motion requires that our thinking be in motion too.


And Now the Hard Part

Friday I came to my 9:15 World Politics class with an apology.  Due to my late night obsession with events in Egypt, I had forgotten to write the quiz they were supposed to take.   They didn’t seem to mind.    And for the past week, this has been an obsession.  Following al jazeera streaming video and reporting, watching events unfold in what I’m convinced is the start of an historic transformation of the Arab world, it’s hard not to be caught up in the emotion of the millions celebrating at Tahrir square in Cairo.

The news of Mubarak’s resignation was timely.  I was about to go participate in a panel discussion about Egypt (which drew a nice crowd) just as the news came out.   Some colleagues had al jazeera’s live video stream on the screen before the discussion began.  We were watching history.  It’s hard to over state the importance and drama of the Egyptian revolution; it may be for the Arab world what the French revolution was for the West.

Therein lies the problem.   The French revolution, also greeted with relief and hope by enlightenment thinkers, didn’t turn out so well.   The rule of an autocratic Monarch gave way to chaos and ultimately Napoleon Bonaparte, who would craft a French nationalism that would allow France to conquer Europe for a time.   But Egypt isn’t France.   Egypt isn’t Iran.   Egypt isn’t Berlin of 1989 either.   The path forward is unclear and difficult.

For the Arab world to truly progress a few things need to happen.  First, real democratic reform must take place, and the people must work to assure they aren’t hijacked by well organized extremist groups.   This will require the military perhaps moving faster and with less caution then they’d prefer, and the people will have to have more patience and trust in the military than they’d like.   The military in Egypt is a key player in this; as in Turkey, the Egyptian military could make democracy it’s goal, while at the same time preventing it from collapse.

Second, we should get less caught up in the debate about “secular” vs. “religious” groups and think more broadly about the development of a true civil society.   Technically civil society is defined as people voluntarily participating in social and civic organizations.   But millions taking to the street to demand change is also a strong indication of a potential civil society.    The key is to turn that desire for change into effective long term efforts to make Egypt a vibrant society.

The emphasis of especially western scholars on voluntary organizations is only one aspect of civil society.   It misses the core issue — why it is that people might choose to get involved.  Civil society is constructed first and foremost on a series of shared beliefs and understandings about society and the role of both the individual and government.   Polities can function well even with very different governmental structures if the underlying shared norms and values fit with how the country operates.   Social democracy works well in Sweden, but probably wouldn’t work in Alabama.

That also explains why ideologues tend be wrong about politics — they try to use reason to figure out the right form of government, rather than recognizing that a government has to fit the culture to function.   To truly change politics, culture must change.  Otherwise, you need force to prevent things from simply reverting to what they were before.

In Egypt the new generation — half the population is under 24 — has a very different set of cultural values than their elders.   That’s why Mubarak and Suleiman were so clueless; their message of ‘stability and security’ spoke to an Egypt that is fading away.  The new generation wants opportunity, freedom, global connections, and a voice.   They now know they can change the world when they unite.

That’s why it is misguided to raise dire warnings about the Muslim Brotherhood or expect the extremists to benefit from this Arab transformation.  The Brotherhood has a charter that sounds pretty extreme, but its make up is diverse, and in recent years has been moderating.   Yet there are extremists amongst them, and a number of them would love to take whatever new freedoms are emerging and radicalize the youth.   Their dream is that the Arab youth embrace fundamentalist Islam.

That’s not going to happen.   Even in Iran where the Muslim clerics hold power, the people are not with them, especially not the youth.  In the Arab world groups like al qaeda have also been rejected.    In fact, it was  probably torture and oppression at the hands of people like Mubarak that helped fan Islamic extremist flames in the first place.  Given the rise of al jazeera and the desire of the youth for opportunity, the only way for extremists to gain traction is if a global depression creates true economic catastrophe in the Mideast.

The West can help by encouraging true acceptance of Muslims in our societies, modeling religious tolerance, and allowing western Muslims, who are mostly modern and anti-fundamentalist, to come up with a coherent theological counter to the extremists.    They can even find it in their own past, before the Ottomans enforced a reactionary conservative Islam, Islamic rationalists saw the Koran as a human product, to be interpreted differently in changing times, and subject to human reason.   It will be a difficult transition, the extremists will try to create instability and enemies, maybe lashing out at the West hoping create a conflict that will spread chaos.   As long as we don’t let them goad us, they have a losing hand.

The image below is powerful; Coptic Christians encircling Muslims at prayer time to protect them from the police.   Interfaith collaboration and cooperation can help all sides focus on the common values they promoted so powerfully in the last three weeks.

Perhaps I am too optimistic.  It’s hard not to be moved by millions of people demanding liberty and democracy, willing to suffer long uncomfortable weeks of protest, to risk death (and many did die) and torture, and then to erupt in joy when the tyrant backed down.    Yet if one cannot be optimistic about this, what does it say for the values we as a country hold true?

As was the case in 1989, the most moving aspect of this revolution is that it came non-violently from the people deciding they would no longer tolerate tyranny and oppression.   When the people unite, they can bring down any government or ruler.   The hard part is not to loss patience or interest during the difficult transition.  There isn’t a lot the US government can do, but governments may not be as important as they used to be.   We all can connect via social media, promote the values we believe in, make our voices known and recognize that the Egyptians have shown us a glimpse of what the new order could become:  power to the people.


A Culture of Democracy?

On ABC news Egypt’s vice President Omar Suleiman (who has a notoriously bad human rights record) stated that Egypt likes the necessary “culture of democracy” to make the changes demanded by protesters.   As anyone reading my blog knows, I have often noted that democracy rests on certain cultural attributes which, if not present, could cause not only failure of  democracy, but instability and chaos.   So on its face, Suleiman’s argument seems valid.   While many see it as a rationalization of holding on to power, there is a logic to it.   Yet when examined more closely, his argument is fatally flawed.

Suleiman would no doubt point to the current difficulties establishing democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the fact that even western democracies had trouble becoming established.  Early democracies in Germany and Japan in the 1920s gave way to militaristic dictatorships which started wars.  France is on its fifth Republic.   Even the US only recently fit the modern definition of democracy; early on it had slavery, women couldn’t vote, and other attributes that now would be unacceptable.  Playing on fear of radical Islam, Suleiman would warn that the Muslim Brotherhood could “take over.”  He could also hint that changes in Egypt might end the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement.   Sufficiently fearful, the West might decide to back the autocrat over the freedom fighters.

Yet, the problem with Suleiman’s argument is that it is being used as an excuse to hold on to power.  On September 11, 1971 Egypt’s current constitution was passed, with Anwar Sadat proclaiming that Egypt would become a democracy.   However, since Egypt like the rest of the region had no experience with democracy, Sadat feared opening it up too fast.  Instead he limited competition, created the NDP (Nationalist party – Sadat and Mubarak’s party) and Amal, then the Labor party originally headed by Sadat’s brother in law.  The competition would carefully controlled between a left of center and a right of center party.

This wasn’t a bad idea in 1971.   Egyptians would get used to voting, get used to competition between parties, and over time develop a so-called ‘culture of democracy.’    Yet for that to happen, the guided democracy would have to allow peaceful transfers of power between the “allowed” parties, and increase the range of tolerated debate.   Even Iran has done that.   Egypt, however, has gone the other direction.

Sadat died in 1981, and Mubarak has ruled ever since.   In the last election he had 88% of the vote.  Egypt’s “guided democracy” has become  a sham democracy, simply a way to rationalize continued power by an NDP which acts more like a mafia gang than a peoples’ government.   The main opposition party is the New Wafd party, which in the last parliamentary election got six seats compared to 420 for the NDP.   (There were 69 independents elected, mostly from the banned Muslim Brotherhood).    Simply, the NDP and Mubarak’s inner elite have been comfortable simply ruling autocratically, with no effort or concern about building a culture of democracy.  That’s why the protesters don’t want to back down.

What this means is that even if Suleiman is right, keeping the current regime in place to guide a transition makes no sense.  They have proven that they don’t want democracy.  They have had forty years to create guided democracy and they’ve instead used Sadat’s constitution as a rationale to simply hold on to power and expand corruption.   The protesters are right to demand Mubarak quit and that a new caretaker regime of opposition leaders plan the transition.  The old guard wants to hang on to power because they don’t want to be arrested for corruption or get off the gravy train.

So is Suleiman right in his argument, even if he and the NDP gang are the wrong ones to trust for a transition to something different?   In part, yes.    Democracies are very difficult to create and maintain.   There are groups in Egypt who would prefer to grab power and not relinquish it.  It is a rocky path to a true functioning democratic polity.   However, the fact that half of Egypt’s population is under 24, and willing to take to the streets is a sign that they are a transformative generation.   They aren’t going to have the patience of their elders, and they are more connected to the modern world than ever before.   Informed by al jazeera, connected through Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of new media, they are ready to lead the country in a new direction.   The old “guided democracy” isn’t enough.

If a trusted group of opposition leaders could work with technocrats to keep the system functioning while rules for new elections are planned, you could get a guided transition.   It need not be a sudden jolt to pure democracy, but it will be a series of reforms that will move Egypt discernibly away from tyranny and towards freedom.   If the leaders are trusted by the people, they’ll have patience.   They have no reason to show patience to the old guard.

And if Egypt can move towards a true culture of democracy, then they can lead the Arab world in that direction.   Arabs can develop their own path to modernity rather than being pushed there at gun point as was done in Iraq.   So while Suleiman may have a point, it’s no reason for the old gang to cling to power, and no reason not to start a transition to actually build and develop a culture of democracy.    The NDP is a relic from a different era.   Egypt is ready for generational change.

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Mubarak is not our Friend

One of the criticisms being made of President Obama’s Egypt policy is his willingness to betray a “friend,” Hosni Mubarak.  Mubarak, it is claimed, has been a friend of the US for thirty years.  It is somehow ignoble to turn against him now.

That view is fundamentally flawed.  First of all, if alliances in world politics were akin to friendships, then we’d never be close to someone like Mubarak.  Egypt tortures, abuses and oppresses.  Mubarak has amassed an empire worth over $70 billion, even as Egyptians overall get poorer.  He runs Egypt like an organized criminal enterprise, with no regard for human rights.

The US has supported him because the realities of world politics made it in our interest to support him.  Egypt recognized Israel’s existence, helped the US in a number of ways, and tried to prove itself a good ally.  In exchange Egypt got billions of dollars of aid, a massive quid pro quo.  So we owe Egypt nothing.   They’ve done things to benefit us, we’ve paid them in response, be that right or wrong.

If we determine it’s not in our interest to support Egypt any more, then we owe a dictatorial corrupt thug like Mubarak no more respect than was due Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic.   If it is not in our interest any more to support such a government, we should be breathing a sigh of relief and celebrating the fact we no longer have to have such a horrible ally.  Good riddance!

But is it in our interest?   Some people claim yes — that our support of dictators in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait could be undermined.   Perhaps these brutal regimes won’t trust the US any more and be less malleable to US pressure.   Spare me.   The Saudis are hard nosed and have long been willing to counter the US and act against US interest, especially in terms of oil deals with China and support for extremists.    There are only two reasons support for dictators could be seen as in our interest: Israel and Oil.

The biggest argument against support for Mubarak being in our interest is the fact that with most of the Arab world under 25, vast change in the region is inevitable.   The idea that tottering corrupt regimes will be able to hold on to power in this new age of twitter feeds, al jazeera and social media is akin to those who said in November 1989 that communism could persist in East Europe despite the fall of the Berlin Wall.   The changes are real and will grow in scope.  To embrace the dictators as they fall would be suicidal.  It would put the US clearly on the side of tyranny and against democracy and liberty.   Moreover, if the dictatorships are too comfortable that the US will support them no matter what, they’ll fight against any kind of reform, thereby making it likely that when their inevitable collapse comes, it won’t be peaceful.

Being on the right side of history is important, especially if we want to have solid relations with the successor regimes to these dictatorships, and work with them to support a modern, progressive Arab world, and not one that sinks back into extremist fundamentalist religious belief.   We don’t want to feed the flames of groups like Muslim Brotherhood, who would love to point at the US and say, “they are the reason for all the suffering and oppression.”  So there is nothing wrong with cutting Mubarak lose.  We paid for his assistance, but it’s more like a man who stops going to a prostitute once he finds a mate.    Mubarak was a whore.

Yet Israel and oil are legitimate concerns.  We don’t want to risk all out war in the region, or another round of Arab-Israeli fighting.  We don’t want to empower groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, or do anything to aid Islamic extremism.   We certainly do not want instability to drive up the cost of oil and undercut any recovery or restructuring of the national and global economy.  Not only is it moral unacceptable to say we have to support dictators ad infinitum in order to support those interests, but given the changes sweeping the region, that policy isn’t going to work.

There are no clear answers, but its a good bet the youth in the Arab world aren’t striving for freedom just so they can go fight a war against Israel.   That isn’t their generation’s battle.   Stability in oil markets certainly doesn’t require dictatorship.   The claim that all hell will break loose if we don’t stand by corrupt dictators is dubious.   It represents taking what is a possible outcome and vastly over stating its probability.

Ultimately the US needs to stand by its principles.  Yes, at times we make compromises, the world is such that one can’t be a starry eyed idealist.  But compromise cannot be so deep that the principles drown or become unrecognizable.  That’s what has happened in the Mideast.  For a half century we’ve supported dictators, aided corruption, and rationalized it because it got us cheap oil good for the economy.   Dictators have made it easy for Israel not to make the hard decisions required to finally make peace with their fellow inhabitants of Palestine.   We’ve become addicted to supporting dictators because it makes the hard issues go away.  The oil flows.

But this no longer works, Tunisia and Egypt are first signs of the coming change.   We have to first make clear that Mubarak is not a friend, no matter how much our countries worked together the last thirty years.   Moreover, we need to have a foreign policy that achieves our interests without requiring decades long support of corrupt tyrants.   We need to support the growing voices calling for change in Africa and the Arab world.

Young people in Egypt and beyond want a 21st century with democracy, human rights, and hope.   If the US rejects their cause, then what kind of country have we become?


Al Jazeera and a 21st Century Revolution

I love this photo, which was posted on the February 4th version of the al Jazeera website blog.  If you can’t follow al Jazeera live video streaming, their blog gives some of the best up to date information.   Just go to their website:, click blogs and go to the day’s blog (Egyptian time — it’s seven hours later than EST).

Most cable companies and satellite providers don’t offer al jazeera English language, which is too bad because without a doubt they are providing the best and most comprehensive coverage of the Egyptian revolution than any other English language television network.    The reason we can’t watch is because during the Iraq war the US considered al-Jazeera a propaganda voice for anti-Americanism.   Despite the fact that they were simply reporting what was really happening on the ground, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accused them of being dishonest and trying to undercut the US effort to stabilize Iraq.   The US even bombed al Jazeera’s headquarters, killing one reporter.

There is now an effort underway to demand that al jazeera English be added as an option on cable and satellite providers, and one person who should endorse this is President Bush.   President Bush had a few things right about the Mideast.   He got one thing very wrong, however.  He thought US power and military force could push the region in the right direction.   It turns out that the key ingredients may be media information and the force of youth.

President Bush noted that the governments in the Arab world were repressive and undemocratic.  That, Bush and others in his administration argued, is the core of the problem.   With most of the population under 22, these regimes are unsustainable and anachronistic.    If they hold on to power, the youth will see no alternative but to join extremists in trying to create a new order, one that might embrace ideals of Islamic fundamentalism and anti-western extremism.

They hoped that if they could install a democracy in Iraq that would be a model of stability and prosperity for the region, they could bring change.   The US would be positioned to help end dictatorships, spreading democracy and markets in the Arab world, undercutting terrorism and ushering in a new era.

Well, that didn’t happen.   People don’t like the world’s superpower coming in and trying to force change, and instead were outraged by the death, destruction and apparent arrogance of US policy.   For a brief time al qaeda and the radicals were emboldened, as the US suffered humiliation after humiliation.  President Bush’s vision appeared fatally flawed, and he now is looked upon as having had a failed Presidency.

That judgment is too harsh.  He was wrong about using military power as a means to bring positive change, but I suspect that was a lesson the US was doomed to learn the hard way.   Much of what President Bush saw as the core problems in the Mideast was right.   The regimes there cannot persist, they are anachronistic or, as the poster notes, “Mubarak is so 80’s!”

As the population boom starts to come of age (Egypt had 45 million people when Mubarak came to power, now they have 83 million), they are also getting news about the corruption and repression practiced by Arab governments.   The Qatar station, originally launched in 1996, has democratized information, undercutting the propaganda from state sponsored media.   Young people in the region have become better informed, and thanks to the internet and social media like facebook and twitter, able to organize political action effectively and spontaneously.

The leaders of Mubarak’s generation, as well as most foreign policy makers in the US, are slow to see the impact of the information revolution on politics.  They don’t understand the dynamics — or how this may be the tip of an iceberg that will affect not just the Arab world, but the entire planet.

Instead of the US trying to use it’s waning global power to force people to change, people are making the choice on their own, thanks in large part to the news station the US government so despised in 2003.  Al Jazeera is succeeding where President Bush failed, but in so doing, at least vindicating the motives behind the Bush Administration’s policies.  They had the ends right, but chose the wrong means.

Moreover, while choosing war to try to force change had the short term impact of helping al qaeda recruit and increasing Islamic extremism in the region, al jazeera is promoting modernism.    Today they showed video of Coptic Christians surrounding Muslims at prayer time, so the Muslims could pray without fear of being assaulted by pro-Mubarak demonstrators.   Average Muslims also came to the aid of Christians last Christmas, when Islamic extremists attacked.

The power of al jazeera, social media and the youth revolution is also one reason to expect that the cynics are wrong when they predict a well organized and disciplined Islamic extremist organization like Muslim Brotherhood will come out on top and create an Islamic state that despises Israel and wants to somehow spread its fundamentalist vision across the region.   That’s simply not what the youth want.   That’s not the way this new generation in the Arab world thinks.  They want to forge their own modern identity, not mimicking the West, but not going back to the pre-modern Arab world groups like al qaeda desire.

Hand wringing cynics point to the French revolution or the Russian revolution, and argue that history says this is likely to turn out very bad.   And, of course, it might.    But this looks more like the revolt against Communism in 1989 when people rejected a whole system of government and chose to expand freedom and reject control.   Such crowds could easily rise up against an Islamic extremist government (and it’s hard imaging in the Egyptian military tolerating a theocratic regime anyway).

History has not been written on the Egyptian revolution, but it appears to be the first real 21st Century revolution, spurred by the information revolution, new media, and the capacity of organizations like al jazeera to circumvent official sources and propaganda.    At this point in time the 20th Century seems a distant memory.

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Egypt is not Iran

Some pundits are comparing the situation in Egypt to the dilemma faced by President Carter when Iranians suddenly brought down the Shah in a revolt that virtually no one saw coming.   At that time there was pressure on President Carter to support the Shah, even though the protesters wanted freedom and democracy, not oppressive dictatorship.

Iran, however, was a pillar ally to the US in the region.  Bordering the Soviet Union, it was the regional power, receiving massive amounts of US military aid.  It protected Persian Gulf oil from the Soviets or anyone else who might want to control or disrupt the oil fields.  Iran is not Arab, and though Islam is the primary religion, the Shah was anti-religious, thinking only the weak minded needed such a crutch.   As such he brutally put down religious extremists, and was a good friend to Israel.   Losing Iran meant that suddenly Persian gulf oil was vulnerable and the regional powerhouse upon which US Mideast foreign policy depended became a potential adversary.

We know what happened next.  The Shah fell, and the Ayatollah Khomeini, the most prominent face of the opposition, became leader.    The Iranians stormed the US embassy and took the Americans there hostage.   Khomeini used anti-Americanism to grip power even tighter (one of the first things the Obama Administration did when Egypt fell into disarray is to greatly reinforce security at the US embassy in Egypt).   In 1980 Iraq under Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, and that sealed the deal.   The religious fundamentalist government could say “you may disagree with us, but we have to come together to defeat the Arab invaders.”  In the eight years that war went in, the clerics coalesced power and shaped what we now know as the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In Egypt there is another foreign policy priority at stake: Mideast peace.   When Israel was formed in 1948 the Arab peoples were angry.  They didn’t mind Jews living there, but they didn’t want what they considered to be Arab land taken and turned into a Jewish state.  Four wars and 25 years later Israel had expanded its borders, and was occupying the West Bank (formerly controlled by Jordan), Gaza and the Sinai pennisula (formerly held by Egypt).  At that point Egyptian President Anwar Sadat decided that just or not, Israel existed and that fact could not be overturned with military power.  Rather than to condemn young people to continual (and pointless) war he made a deal: peace for land.  Egypt got the Sinai back, Israel promised to work on a deal for the West Bank and Gaza, and Egypt formally recognized Israel and became an ally.

Since Egypt was the dominant Arab military, this made another Arab-Israeli war impossible, ending that cycle of wars.  Israel couldn’t annex the occupied territories because that would give Arabs a majority in the Jewish state — they could vote it out of existence.  But they haven’t been able to figure out what to do, and the situation has festered for nearly 45 years.

The alliance with Egypt took pressure off Israel to make a deal over the West Bank and Gaza.  In the ensuing years frustration at being occupied and denied basic rights turned into anger, hate and violence.    Groups like Hamas formed against the corruption in the Palestinian authority, and neighboring Syria joined with Iran to back the Lebanese group Hezbollah, creating new dangers for the Israeli state.   Suicide bombers terrorized Israelis, as Palestinians lashed out against their occupation.  But as long as Egypt and Israel are allies, total war is impossible.   For 35 years Israel and Egypt have gotten the lion’s share of US foreign aid, most of it military.  This year’s share for Egypt is $1.5 billion.

As was the case with Iran, there is an Islamic fundamentalist opposition in Egypt.   In Egypt it is Islamic Brotherhood.   Started in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, it sought to promote the creation of a pure Islamic state.   Islam was not a strong political force in the early days.   Egypt’s first President, Abdul Nasser, came to power by joining other military officers in overthrowing King Faruk in 1952.  He espoused a kind of Arab Socialism, a non-Marxist non-aligned ideal of promoting Arab values.   He died in 1970, and replaced by Anwar Sadat.  Sadat was assassinated by an Islamic extremist in 1981 because of his deal with Israel.  Hosni Mubarak has been in power ever since.

Most foreign policy elite are used to the Egypt of Sadat and the early days of Mubarak.   Egypt’s government allows people to live relatively free lives and do business as long as they do not threaten political instability.   The Muslim Brotherhood was banned (though some members do run as independents and get into the parliament).    Most citizens were satisfied that elections were being held, and though dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party, some opposition was allowed.   But in the last election, in 2005, the NDP got 80% of the votes and Mubarak near 90%.   Effective opposition is not allowed.

The demographic trends I talked about two weeks ago conspire with the increasing ease of gaining information and organizing opposition to make this Egypt very different than the one foreign policy elites are accustomed to.  This is a new generation, a new century.  They are not satisfied with relative stability, and given rising food costs and increasing poverty (in part because of the population growth), there is a desire for change that goes far beyond groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.  Mubarak’s government — like those in much of the rest of the Arab world — has become obsolete.   Obsolete governments can hang on, sometimes for quite awhile, but sooner or later reality gets to them.   Trying to maintain the status quo by helping Mubarak will at best succeed for only a short time.

Yet the idea that Muslim Brotherhood will come to power like the clerics in Iran and set up a radical Islamic state is not a probable outcome.  Egyptians do not want to be like Iran, or like Saudi Arabia, and there is no reason to expect that the Muslim Brotherhood can do there what the Ayatollahs did in Iran.   Sunni Islam has a different sense of politics than does Shi’ite (Egyptians are Sunni, the Iranians are Shi’ite), and the Muslim Brotherhood does not provide the ‘face  of the opposition’ by Khomeini did.  Indeed, the protesters are mostly unaligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.  Moreover, Iran has oil, it had the resources to be more independent.   Any new government in Egypt has to deal with the problems of poverty and economic weakness.   The US and the EU will be in a position to make deals that the Egyptians cannot simply reject.

If one reads the alarmists, something which I labeled in my last post a “worst case scenario” gets put forth as if it’s likely.   War will break out, oil prices will skyrocket, a new Islamic state will emerge and further radicalize the Arab world!  Perhaps, but not likely.   Those who want to fear Islam see the worst case scenario as more likely than it is, just as those who yearn for change in Egypt see the best case scenario as more likely than it is.

Egypt is not Iran.   History has yet to be written.  The US can’t shape events, but how we and our allies react to them will help guide the trajectory of history.  So far the Obama administration has done the right things and adopted the right tone — President George H.W. Bush’s former Secretary of State James Baker made that point publicly.   The test, however, is yet to come.  As protesters and “pro-Mubarak thugs” fight it out in Tahir square, the diplomats have to get ready to be creative and innovative as they move into uncharted territory.  That’s probably something they’ll need to get used to.


What Next in the Mideast?

We still don’t know where the protest movement in Egypt will go.   Word is that the Obama Administration doesn’t think Mubarak can last, but also doesn’t want American fingerprints on the transition.   They are taking a wait and see approach, as is the world.   People are drawing comparisons to the Iranian revolution in 1979, and some say that the US should take a stand to support Mubarak or Obama will have “lost Egypt.”

This is no longer the 20th Century.   The idea that the US can prop up dictatorships and treat third world states as pawns in power political games is obsolete.    That simply won’t work.    As I noted last week, demographics and the information revolution make change in the Arab world inevitable. So what if this is a start of a great transformation in the Mideast, the start of a process of modernization that at some point could yield democratic, modern societies?  How will this unfold?

Alas, just as the US can’t simply prop up Mubarak and hold back the change, neither can the US or anyone wave a magic wand and dictate that Egyptians will peacefully go to the polls and vote in a reasonable moderate government.   Forces of Islamic extremism, secular modernism, moderate Islam and democratic human rights advocacy co-exist.  They may unite against Mubarak, but will fight with each other.

Moreover, if Egypt is a canary in a coal mine, the first of the authoritarian post-Ottoman states to throw off the shackles of an oppressive government (Iran was never part of the Ottoman Empire), what will happen if this spreads?  Already Jordan and Yemen have growing protests, while tensions exist in Saudi Arabia.   The Saudis’ oil money can buy them support Mubarak could not afford, but no government will likely last.   Much as Communism fell virtually overnight in Eastern Europe, change may come more swiftly than people realize in the Arab world.  What will it be like?

If Europe’s modernization process is any guide, it may be very messy.    To be sure, the Europeans modernized at their own pace, with no one ahead of them either pushing them faster than they wanted to go, or showing them the way with aid and advice.   The Arab world is modernizing in a global interdependent system which itself is undergoing transition.  When Europe modernized there was blowback.  The Church fought capitalism and modernism, ideologies like communism and fascism emerged to offer new threats.   There were civil wars, holocausts, purges and ultimately two world wars engulfing Europe, taking countless millions of lives, before the Europeans found something that works — a stable cooperative economic and political arrangement known as the ‘European Union.’

A new political culture needs to emerge; a new set of norms, understandings and shared values upon which a stable political system can be built.   There is no “right” political system or government, only ones which work because the underlying culture fosters values that promote stability.   To build that from an authoritarian state where dissent is violently repressed is very difficult and usually follows a rocky path.

This opens the real possibility that this wave of protest could unleash a war against Israel fought not by Arab armies easily defeated by the IDF, but rather waves of terrorism and fighting by young people — again, the population of the Arab world is almost half under 23 and the population keeps growing.    One can imagine Iran challenging the Arab world and a potential war between the Arabs and the Persians, this time with Iraq as a battleground (and host to a civil war).

A best case scenario would be for Egypt to model a kind of “government of national unity” that would forge compromises between the various groups.   Moderate elements of the Muslim Brotherhood would need to have considerable influence to make that happen, though there is evidence that even Muslim fundamentalists are dubious of the violence and desire for conflict against the West that drives groups like al qaeda.   In a “best case” scenario, Egypt’s turmoil convinces other states to proactively reform, trading power for a comfortable future (no violent overthrow, but instead protection of wealth in exchange for giving up power).

The US and the West walk a tightrope.   Intervention and support for dictators makes it more likely the extremists can exercise influence by playing the anti-Americanism card.   If the West is generally supportive and non-interventionist, letting events work themselves out as they will, a quiet role of helping create stability could be played.  This would be at the invitation of Arab governments, not through a forceful desire to create “regime change.”

If it weren’t for two issues — Israel and oil — the West could probably just sit this out and let that region change on its own.  The Israelis were shocked by the 2006 war with Hezbollah.  Hezbollah’s continuing strength in Lebanon along with the possibility of a resurgent, nuclear Iran, has already unnerved the Israelis.  The possibility that their Egyptian ally could totter likely brings them close to panic.   The good news is that confronted with the possibility of all out war with a nuclear Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood, which contains moderate elements, might join Hamas to hammer out a peace deal with Israel.  The logic of this view rests with the fact that right now Israel has no reason to truly compromise, they are in a position of relative strength.  If that changes, then perhaps Israel will be forced to compromise in ways that can lead to an effective solution.

Another possibility is all out war — with Israel’s survival in doubt.  When these changes sweep the Arab world, something will give in the Israeli-Arab conflict.  Either there will be war, perhaps involving nuclear weapons and the end of the Israeli state, or there could be a move towards peace.    It’s impossible to accurately set the odds for either outcome.  If there is war, then oil supplies will likely suffer dramatic cuts.  Even if there is some turmoil in Saudi Arabia oil prices will rise.   This could usher in another recessionary wave, perhaps bad enough to push the global economy into clear depression.

So the stakes are high, yet the US is not and can not control how things develop.   We are in a position of having to react.   Iraq taught us the limits of our military power, Iran in 1979 showed the impact of being too closely associated with the former dictator, and though President Obama has restored some prestige to the US in that part of the world, we are mostly spectators in this historical transformation of the Mideast.

And what if Mubarak pulls through, and the protests die out?   That will mean that the leaders in the Mideast have been served notice — there is a storm brewing below them if they don’t make clear and consequential changes.   I get the sense that something big is starting, something that will shift the course of history in ways we cannot yet know.


You Say You Want a Revolution?

As the industrialized West fights with declining birth rates, threatening the capacity to maintain pensions and adequate health care as life spans expand and families have less children, a different phenomenon is taking place in the Arab world and northern Africa.   In Egypt half the population is under 24.   In Saudi Arabia the median age is 25,  22 in Jordan, 20 in Iraq, 21 in Syria, and in non-Arab Iran it’s 26.  For comparison, the median population age is 37 in the US, 44 in Italy and Germany, and 40 in France and Great Britain.

And in the Arab world population has grown dramatically, and will continue to do so as those entering their twenties start having children.  The population explosion and massive shift to youth in that part of the world has profound political implications.

For the past forty years, the US has pursued good relations with authoritarian leaders in northern Africa.   After Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel, the US has heaped aid upon Egypt, even as Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, rules with an iron fist (and a faint illusion of democracy).  He is currently grooming his son to take his place.  Egypt is more like North Korea than the US.  The Saudi royal family maintains its deal with the extreme Wahhabi religious sect of Islam, to the point that before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 the Saudis were considered more repressive than Saddam’s Iraq.    Syria’s Baathist regime also maintains a tyrannical iron grip.

If you look at rankings of democracy and human rights, the Arab world is last, making the least progress in moving to democracy or respect for human rights.   Only Israel and Iran boast democratic governments, though Iran is really only a semi-democracy due to the power of the clerics in the Guardian council.    The US learned how resilient such authoritarian repression can be when after overthrowing Saddam, massive amounts of aid and support could not build a functioning democracy in Iraq.   Iraq is now less democratic than Iran, riddled with corruption as more often than not local thugs run things on the ground.

The reason is obvious.   The Ottoman Empire, which came to power in the wake of numerous attacks on the Islamic world from the outside, put together a ruthless military dictatorship.   To support it they pushed aside Islamic rationalism — an interpretation of Islam which, if followed, could have catapulted the Islamic world into the modern age, and brought back a rigid, fundamentalist doctrine.    To be sure, the Islamic rationalists did reach the West, studied by Thomas Aquinas, laying the ground work for Europe’s move to modernism.

This took what had been a progressive, tolerant civilization and put it in the deep freeze, with religious fundamentalists deifning Islam in a way that arguably veers wildly from what the Koran teaches.   In exchange for granting them that religious clout, the clerics gave unconditional support to the Ottoman Empire.   When the “young Turks” tried to reform it in the 19th Century, even as it was evident the empire was anachronistic and collapsing, they couldn’t.  It took World War I to finally bring the Ottomans down.

The corrupt and ruthless culture (by the end assassination was a common form of advancing ones’ career) they left behind is evident in the styles of Saddam, Assad, and even the Saudi royal family.   It is a very conservative, traditional and repressive approach to politics and life, rationalized with religion and custom.   It has continued despite globalization and outside pressure, in part because oil wealth gave the rulers the capacity to buy support.

However, modernism is a force that is hard to halt.  The youth of the Arab world (and in Iran) are not satisfied with their corrupt governments, and as their population swells, the old corrupt elite are not going to be able to maintain power.    After events last week in Tunisia surprisingly brought down a corrupt and brutal government, calls started to mount for Egypt to have its own revolution.

These weren’t calls from radical anarchists or anything, but included Mohammad El-Baradei, former head of the IAEA, and partial winner of a Nobel Peace Prize.   Whether or not this will lead to anything, it’s clear that change is going to force itself onto the Arab world, and the youth will not be kept down forever.  They are inundated with modern ideas, and the pace of change in such rapidly growing societies has already weakened tradition and custom.   It is only a matter of time until something gives, and it’s unlikely the corrupt leaders will have the capacity to hold back the storm.   In retrospect, the Arab elites of today may look a lot like the European aristocracy of the 18th Century – apparently on top of the world, but doomed by the trajectory of history.

What will this mean?   Although people like Osama Bin Laden have tried to feed off the discontent and the inherent anti-Americanism in that part of the world (our support for their corrupt leaders is pretty well known), he’s anti-modern.  He’s trying to fight against change.   Symbolically he’s fighting against the French revolution and the rise of reason and rational thought.  For him Medina in 622 AD is a model of how life should be today, western secularism, liberty and moral laxity are evils to be rejected.

Most young Arabs don’t think that way.  A few extremists will join that kind of cause, but what’s really impressive in the years since 9-11-01 is how little traction Islamic extremism has gotten in the Arab world.   The youth are unlikely to embrace puritanism and religious devolution as their future, especially as modern influences grow.

There is a danger, though, that if the US remains too associated with the hated regimes that have created this stagnant mess, anti-Americanism could be a unifying force, and that could prove harmful to US interests down the line.   If that isn’t tempered, anti-Israeli sentiment could be a unifying factor for these young people, as Arabs tend to see their defeats to Israel as humiliating and unjust.   Certainly the Israelis realize that the ticking demographic time bomb could be a real threat to their existence as a state if radicalism of any sort unites the Arab world against them.

We should find a way to get on the right side of history here, recognizing the inevitability that change and modernity will sweep the Arab world.    One clear way is to embrace respect for Islam; President Bush had the right tone when he proclaimed Islam “a religion of peace,” realizing that opposing and dissing a peoples’ faith is not a way to win friends.

President Bush also had one thing right in his choice to go to war in Iraq.   The old order cannot survive, and it would be best if democracy and markets could flourish.   He and his advisers under estimated the difficulty of pushing for change, ignoring both the power of culture and the inability of military power to effectively shape political and cultural outcomes.  But if war isn’t a way to bring positive change, then perhaps engagement and cooperation will be.   Moreover, this need not be governmental, it can be through citizens groups, non-governmental organizations and interfaith communities.

Because change is coming.   There will be revolutions of some sort.   The current order cannot last.   Perhaps if we can play a positive role we can repay an old debt.   Not only did Islamic rationalist philosophers point Thomas Aquinas to Aristotle, starting the move to modernism in the West, but Islamic ideas from Moorish Spain sparked the renaissance in Italy.   If not for Islam, the West might never have modernized.


Islamophobia becoming a caricature

The irrationality of Islamophobia is easy to demonstrate.   There are very, very few Muslim terrorists, and those who are reflect a political problem in Mideast countries under corrupt governments where the youth lack hope, or in rare cases a backlash against western culture.   The adherents of Bin Laden are the exception rather than the rule, and they do not adhere to true Muslim doctrine in the eyes of over 99% of the Islamic world.  And from the perspective of Muslims, the real mass killing has been done in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Gaza, with Muslims the victims of state terror.   The idea that Muslims are more violent or dangerous is simply wrong.

Yet some people find it easy to make collective broadsides against over a billion innocents.    Anger over a Muslim day at an amusement park after Ramadan, opposition to a community Center in New York City and weird claims that Arabs are crossing the border disguised as Mexicans to have babies that will become terrorists in 18 years were typical.  Calls for ‘internment camps’ and threats to bomb Mecca have faded, however, as most Americans realize that the over the top rhetoric was both irrational and un-American.

Yet there are a few are still at it.   The especially kooky Frank Gaffney seems to think if you have anything to do with a Muslim, you’re infected.  He claims that conservative groups that work with Muslims are trying to spread shariah law and indoctrinate American conservatives  into supporting Islam.    Chief among these alleged insidious traitors are Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, and former Bush staffer Suhail Khan.   I’m kidding, right?  Read it here. He claims that the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), associated with the American Conservative Union (ACU) has the goal of indoctrinating conservatives into giving support to Islam and Sharia law.

Gaffney appears to have a Joseph Goebbels approach to propaganda — tell big and outrageous lies with a sense of urgent certainty, and people will believe  (he’s done this before, as the article cited above notes, and almost always with Muslims as the villains).   But the idea that American conservatives can somehow be duped into promoting Islam and Shariah law is too far fetched to even be taken seriously.    I also am personally upset with Gaffney for threatening the prestige of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies where I got my MA.  He has a Ph.D. from that school!

But Gaffney’s not the only one.   Conservative bloggers are incensed at DC Comics for having Batman choose a French Muslim to head his Paris office.  (Batman runs branch offices?)  Why could he not have a “real” Frenchman?   A good Catholic, or even an atheist?   First, French law makes clear that French identity is related to culture, not genetics.  And the French have a lot of Muslims whose families have been French for generations; they are “true” Frenchmen and women.  These bloggers must be the same people who were miffed that Mecca didn’t get destroyed in the movie 2012!

What kind of bile runs through the veins of a person to make them so hateful towards Islam that they get up in arms over a comic book having a Muslim hero?   Muslims fight and serve in the US armed forces, many have died to save their comrades.  Are they not heroes?   Of course, rationality is not a strong suit with this crowd.   Recently an easily recognizable hoax led to massive effort by opponents of the New York City community center to boycott Justin Bieber. First, boycotting an artist (OK, you can quibble with that description of Bieber) over his or her political views is a bit silly — it’s a sign you’re taking this too seriously.   But not to take the time to really be sure of it before launching a major boycott drive?   Bizarre.

The danger, apparently, is that if we portray Muslims in a kind (I would say, in an accurate) manner, then we’re allowing others to see them as human.  If Muslims are seen as human, then suddenly it’s not fair to single them out and vilify 1.5 billion people because of the acts of a few dozen.    Like Gaffney, who apparently can’t stand that President Bush praised Islam as a religion of peace and had Muslim aids, Islamophobes are to the West what Bin Laden is to Islam: an irrational extreme which wants a ‘clash of civilization’ so the “evil” side can be defeated by the “good” side.

I say put the Islamic extremists and the Islamophobes in a room together and let them fight it out.   The rest of us can work on things like restructuring the economy and advancing human rights.

Still, there is something both frightening and heartening in all this.  It’s frightening that people can let their rationality slip away, and allow fear of the other to take over.   And it is fear — hate, prejudice, bigotry and anger all have fear as their root cause.  It’s heartening, however, to see that most Americans are rejecting that kind of approach, and that increasingly it’s just the over the top bizarre ones that make the news.   Since the misplaced opposition to the Community Center in New York city burst forth, the media has gotten better on explaining the reality of Islam, and countering those wild claims that Muslims wanted to “kill all Christians” and things like that (sort of like how the Nazis said Jews wanted to eat Christian babies).

As it became clear that the man who wanted to build what the Islamophobes originally claimed was a “mosque on the site of Ground zero” to “honor Osama Bin Laden and claim victory” was really a moderate Sufi who has been constantly working for dialogue and cooperation between Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities, people started to see the hatemongers for what they really are.   There is already a mosque at the site of that community center, which is a few blocks from ground zero, not on it.    The public started to shrug at that debate, and move away from a fear that somehow Muslims were a danger.

And with caricatures like Gaffney warning that Muslims are trying to take over the conservative movement, and with bloggers waxing indignant about DC Comics daring to have a French Muslim hero, it’ll continue to become obvious that only the crazies see Islam and Muslims writ large as a threat.   There are dangerous extremist groups, and Islam is going through a difficult process of defining itself in the modern context thanks to globalization.   There are real problems.   One can also criticize the militarism and failures of American foreign policy.   There is a lot to fix and deal with on all sides.  But maybe the craziness is subsiding.


The President Needs to Address the Nation

The President needs to address the nation and speak out forcefully about the building of an Islamic community center a few blocks from ground zero (not a “Mosque at ground zero,” as some claim).

The fact of the matter is that there is no war between Islam and the West.   Most Muslims have absolutely no sympathy for the extremist 9-11 perpetrators.   Remember Timothy McVeigh, the patriot who bombed the Oklahoma Federal building, causing over a hundred deaths, including those of children in a day care located there?   He was striking out to defend the Constitution and American liberties from what he saw as an increasingly tyrannical government.

We all agree with McVeigh’s view that the Constitution is important and should be defended, and many would agree that government is getting too powerful.   Does that mean, though, we lump all who support the constitution and love freedom together as potential terrorists?   Would a monument to the Constitution be inappropriate a few blocks from the Oklahoma Federal Building?    Is anyone who says “the government is getting too intrusive and going against the Constitution” a potential terrorist?   To tie Islam to 9-11 is akin to all that.

The message that we have to make — and Obama should be loud and clear — is that there is no war against Islam.   We do not see Islam as the enemy, and we do not think Muslims should have any lower status or respect because of the acts undertaken by terrorists on 9-11.   They were subverting Islam and abusing it to pursue their political agenda.   We need to completely divorce religion from the fight against terrorism, it’s not about Islam.

President Bush made those points after 9-11.   We are not the kind of country that lumps people together and demonizes a whole faith because of the acts of a few.   That would be contrary to American principles.   One woman was shown with a sign that read “we’ll let you build a mosque at ground zero when you let us build a synagogue in Mecca.”  Wow.  First, that’s directly seeing it as a conflict of religions.   Moreover, it’s implying that another country’s dictatorship should be rationale for our denying rights to Americans.   All of this only serves the extremists on all sides.  The anti-Muslim fanatics in the US who want to belittle Muhammad, demonize Islam and claim that the goal of Islam is to kill all non-Muslims and create a world empire love this sort of thing.  They want a “clash of civilizations.”   Hamas, al qaeda and other extremists love it too — they aren’t winning over the hearts and minds of their fellow Muslims.  Only if they can make America seem to be at war with their entire religion can they hope to inspire some kind of broad support.

Politically this has the potential to actually be a windfall for Obama.   This could be the point where the tea party and the far right wing go too far, making themselves look too xenophobic and bigoted to be taken seriously.   People can say, “wait a minute, just look at this rhetoric, this isn’t what we want for the country.”   The Democrats have the potential to turn 2010 into a much better year than it seems like it will be, thanks to the Republicans.

Much to the distress of most mainstream Republicans, the tea party and right wing punditry’s emphasis on issues like this distract from the economic distress which can not help but severely hurt the party in power.  The wild rhetoric and the choice of extreme candidates like Sharon Angle in Nevada are gifts to the Democrats.  The Republicans can potentially be defined as a bit over the top, extreme, erratic, and too focused on political jihad when most of the public want the two parties to compromise and cooperate to solve problems.   Instead of losing 40 House seats and 7 Senate seats, the Democrats could cut their loses to 20 or so in the House and 4 in the Senate — or perhaps do better.

The key is for Obama to now grab the high ground, show leadership, and boldly take what appears to be an unpopular stance.  He should embrace the Islamic center, describing it accurately, educating people on both it and Islamic teachings.   He must make a persuasive case that welcoming such a center is precisely what we need to do in order to undercut those who aspire to launch new terror attacks.   This is the path to peaceful cooperation.   He should recall the fear after 9-11, and the dangers inherent if there is a “clash of civilizations.”   He should quote President Bush and note that until recently it had been a common theme of both parties that this isn’t about religion.   The only way to oppose the community center is to think 9-11 wasn’t about extremists but was actually about the whole of Islam.

Obama should have families of 9-11 victims there who support the community center.  He should talk clearly about American principles, and frame it so opposition seems petty and misguided.   It should be a masterpiece speech, one crafted well — like his race speech in 2008.   If he pulls this off, suddenly Americans will start to question the rhetoric coming from the far right.   Moreover, Obama’s supporters and Democrats will be more energized — nothing energies more than fear and anger at the “other side.”

This could be a major tipping point for the Democrats, the country, and the Republicans.   For the Democrats, this issue could turn around their fortunes and allow them to regain footing.  They just have to define the issue and not mince words.   Obama has to stand on principle, and not try to have it both ways.   For the country this could be the time where we stared into the abyss — a country going against its very principles, willing to demean a whole other faith, all because of what 19 people did on 9-11 — and said, “no, we’re better than this.”  This could be when we show the world that we truly believe in our principles, we are not at war with Islam, and our goal is to work with Muslims in a spirit of mutual respect.

For Republicans, most of whom would prefer to talk about the economy and who find the tea party and the wild rhetoric out there a bit over the top and distracting, it may be a chance for the moderate conservatives to start to shape the conversation.   Remember President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and “ownership society?”  That kind of talk draws people to the Republicans, not demonizing “liberals” or launching a crusade against an Islamic center in Manhattan.

Mr. President, I know it’s a local issue, and you may think that given the economy, it’s really beneath you to elevate it further.   But this is the kind of symbolic issue which needs Presidential voice.   Please, show leadership beyond governance and getting legislation passed, show the symbolic leadership this country needs right now.  It’ll be good for you and your party, it will be good for the country, and ultimately it will even be good for the Republicans.