Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Optimism or Pessimism on the "Arab Revolt"?

By Barry Rubin

There is a very simple answer to an apparent contradiction about evaluating the current "Arab revolt." If we look at the situation as a whole, there are reasons to think that many events of the last two months have  been positive. Clearly, the resurgence of active opposition in Iran is a good thing. There are real chances for the Tunisia democratization effort to succeed.

In Libya, we know little about the opposition but--and I hope I don't regret having written this--it is hard to see the overthrow of Muammar Qadhafi leading to something worse (though a radical Islamist state allied to the Iran-led bloc would be worse for the region). Yemen is, as always, complex. Bahrain is worrisome but it appears that a compromise will be worked out that will combine reform with stability.

So if we look at the totality of events there is much positive, including the hope that various factors have led to the birth of an important Arab democracy movement.

My concern is not about the revolt as a whole but overwhelmingly about Egypt as a specific case that may go very wrong. Here's a Washington Post article which--after the required assurances on the Brotherhood being weak and opposing violence--gives a sense of the Islamists' energy and resources. And of course if we had a decent U.S. and European foreign policy things could be pushed in a better direction.

In every Arabic-speaking state there is a three-way competition between Arab nationalism; Islamism; and pragmatic, moderate democratization. Every country has a different situation and balance of forces.

The overthrow of the Islamist regime in Iran, the dictatorships in Syria and Tunisia, and that in Libya would be good things in the strategic picture. The overthrow of the regime in Egypt contains great potential dangers.

The overthrow of the Palestinian Authority by Hamas, the Jordanian monarchy by the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Saudi monarchy by people who like Usama bin Ladin would be a disaster.

Meanwhile, everyone seems to have forgotten one of the most important developments of 2011: the takeover of Lebanon by Hizballah and that country's joining to the Iran-Syria bloc. And there is a lot of eye-closing about another huge disaster: the growing foreign policy extremism of the Turkish regime, which is also aligned with the Iran-Syria bloc.

Optimism or pessimism, celebration or worried concern all depends on the circumstances.

One would assume that a sophisticated approach would be taken by opinionmaking and policymaking circles. More typical, however, is this enthuasiastic approach in a Washington Post editorial:

"The direction of events means that, more than ever, the American interest lies in encouraging more rather than less freedom and in reaching out to those Arabs who seek genuine democracy. If that means straining ties with autocratic allies, that is preferable to appearing to back the wrong side."

Let's consider that last sentence. Does the United States want to abandon its relationship with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco--the three key remaining countries friendly to the United States--in order not to back the "wrong side?"

That phrase about supporting "those Arabs who seek genuine democracy" sounds good but we are being told that this category includes the Muslim Brotherhood, anti-American leftists, and radical Arab nationalists.

So what makes someone else the "right" side? Presumably because they will push for change that meets the following qualifications:

--It will bring more freedom, better living standards, and a better life to the people. Do we know this to be true?

--It will be more favorable to U.S. interests. Do we know this to be true?

--It will oppose terrorism, violence, and war in the region.  Do we know this to be true?

Didn't Communism present itself as the right side of history for decades? Doesn't Islamism do so now? One must make case by case distinctions based on serious analysis, not wishful thinking.

Moreover, there is an unspoken assumption that if the United States proves itself to be on the "right" side then the people and new rulers will be grateful to the Americans. This is not how Middle East politics works, as shown by U.S. efforts to be on the "right" side in Iran in 1978-1979, with the Palestinians since the 1990s, and so on. The United States should also be discovering the limits of gratitude in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

What is definitely and 100 percent wrong has been the tendency to be most supportive of upheaval in relatively more moderate states friendly to the West and least supportive of it in radical states hostile to the West.

Down with Ahmadinejad! Down with Bashar al-Assad! Down with Muammar Qadhafi! Down with the Hizballah Iran-Syrian puppet regime in Lebanon! Down with the Islamist government in Turkey! Down with the repressive, terrorist Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip!

That should be enough to keep Western policy busy for a while.

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