Arab Liberation: Another Cold War Ending?
Introduction: The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Cold War and Its Resolution
Today’s New “Cold War”
The Role of Islam
[For a brief update as of 4/21/11, click here.]
Introduction: The Day the Earth Stood Still
On October 24, 1962, the world held its breath and waited for global destruction. I know. I was there. I’ve described here my impressions, which I remember more clearly, after 49 years, than yesterday’s breakfast. I was seventeen and in college. My adult life was just beginning, and I thought it might end on that day. So did millions of others around the globe.
Like me, the Cold War was then just seventeen years old. It would live to be 44. Although I didn’t expect to do so, I’ve outlived it by more than two decades. Now our close brush with species self-extinction is just a page in the history books, a fading memory for those who lived through it.
But only those who lived through it, like me, can recall the tone of the times. Like the War against Terrorists today, the nuclear arms race with the Soviets seemed endless and endlessly terrifying.
The Cold War and Its Resolution
The Cold War lasted 44 years, from 1945 to 1989. Its chief feature was a mindless, horrendously expensive and terrifying nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviet Union.
First there were long-range nuclear bombers. Then came short-range nuclear missiles, then intercontinental ballistic missiles (with their own well-known acronym, ICBMs). Later both sides developed MIRV’ed ICBMs with multiple warheads, so-called “multiple independent re-entry vehicles.” Finally, there were nuclear submarines, which could hold a dozen or so of these terrible weapons and hide under the sea for months at a time. Each submarine could destroy a small nation utterly in fifteen minutes, all by itself.
Besides a pervasive sense of imminent doom, the Cold War produced plenty of frustration. The Soviets held the Baltic and Eastern Europe in their iron embrace. Lot of refugees from their vassal states came here. Their heartfelt tirades against the Soviets were constant. Some here actually wanted war, either to get the whole thing over with at last, or to stop the “Evil Empire” from oppressing so many innocent people. But cooler heads prevailed, and the human race muddled on, under the ever-present threat of self-extinction.
Then, all of a sudden, it was over. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, then Boris Yeltsin. The Berlin Wall fell. Eastern Europe went free, and the fearsome Soviet Union collapsed of its own weight.
It had started in September 1981, with the obscure election of Lech Wałęsa as president of an independent workers’ movement in Poland. Within a decade, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and both Poland’s and Russia’s own people were free. Now Eurasia is at peace. Russia, while not exactly a democracy, at least has the form of one. It is preoccupied with its internal affairs and the advancement of its own ordinary people.
An irrational ideology called Communism had gripped an otherwise sensible people, the Russians, who had created some of humanity’s greatest literature, music and science. Because that ideology contradicted human nature, it required the Terror for its sustenance. The Terror inside led to Terror outside, demonization of the West as the enemy, and the Cold War.
When the Russians and their subject peoples came to their senses, it all went away with hardly a shot fired. The denouement was as bloodless as India’s independence from the British Empire in 1947.
Politicians and historians called it a “miracle.” But it was nothing of the kind. It was the slow process of people coming to their senses, gaining collective courage, and changing their minds and their social environment.
Today’s New “Cold War”
It seems odd that few can see the analogy. Terror by Islamic extremists did not start with 9/11. It’s been going on since the first airplane hijacking in the early 1970s. So it’s now almost as old as the Cold War was when it died of old age. What we are going through is a New Cold War, with Islamic extremism replacing Communism and retail Terror replacing the wholesale Terror of the First Cold War.
There are differences, of course. The tyrannies of Communism ultimately came from a single source: the Kremlin. The tyrannies that provoke Islamic extremism are dispersed and various. They are as rude and obvious as Saddam’s, now gone, the despotism of Assad in Syria or Qaddafi in Libya, or the so-called “Islamic Republic” of Iran. They are as subtle and smooth as the secretly brutal rule of the Saudi Princes, who themselves teach terrorism abroad as part of the price of buying their people’s acquiescence at home. (But just like the Soviet vassal states of Eastern Europe, the Sunni tyrannies reinforce each other; and they play on their fear of the Shiite tyranny, Iran, to beguile their peoples.)
Another important difference is the complex role of religion. Christianity―specifically the Catholic Church―played a vital and entirely positive role in human rejection of Soviet Communism.
With extraordinary courage and determination, a young Polish Cardinal named Karol Wojtyla laid the groundwork for the Polish Solidarity movement and Polish liberation. When the secular Communist tyrants demolished his church and refused to build another, he held his services in an open field for several years, even in the depths of winter. His refusal to be cowed inspired others, led to his selection as Pope John Paul II, and ultimately gave birth to the Solidarity movement.
The Russian people learned of the Pope’s heroism and its legacy of Solidarity though little pamphlets about the size of decks of cards. “Samizdat” self-publishers printed these pamphlets in secret and distributed them secretly, from hand to hand, throughout the Soviet Empire, in various Slavic languages. (I still have one in my library.) Thus did modern communication set the stage for a “miraculuous” bloodless revolution, a decade before the Internet, and right under the noses of the Soviet secret police.
The Role of Islam
In the second Cold War, the role of Islam is more ambiguous. There is no towering figure like Pope John Paul II to inspire a peaceful revolution. Part of the reason is Islam’s loose organization.
Unlike the Catholic Church, Islam has no widely recognized central authority, even among Sunnis or Shiites separately. It’s a fragmented religion. That’s why people as diverse as the mullah-tyrants of Iran and Muqtada al Sadr in Iraq (both Shiites) can claim religous authority. It’s also why someone like Osama bin Laden, who was never an imam and has no formal religious training whatsoever, can purport to issue a fatwa instructing Muslims to kill Americans.
This Islamic decentralization is both bad and good. It’s bad because it allows previously unknown terrorists like Osama bin Laden to claim the mantle of Islam and capture the imagination of an oppressed and suffering people. It’s good because, at any moment, a smarter and more humane Islamic leader can emerge and help liberate the Arabs, just as Pope John Paul II helped free the Slavs.
To my mind, the role of Islam is the key misconception in many Americans’ minds. Not everyone can be as courageous as Karol Wojtyla when facing down what seems to be a monolithic tyranny with all the tanks, guns, planes and social power. People need inspiration and spiritual sustenance, and that’s where religion comes in.
In fact, that’s where Islam already came in. But it got sidetracked.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which was a predecessor of Al Qaeda, started as a resistance movement in Egypt, opposing the military tyranny there. After decades of massive roundups, jailings, and executions of its members, it was no nearer to its goals. So in desperation it turned to what it saw as the motive force behind the tyrants, namely, the West in general and the US in particular.
The terrible irony about this change in tactics was that it was basically a cry for help. Had the cry been directed toward the American people, rather than against Americans and their government, it likely would have struck a chord of sympathy.
But as a cry for help, resort to terror was vastly counterproductive. By the time the terrorists got through with slaughtering the tourists at Luxor, bombing the USS Cole and the barracks in Lebanon, and demolishing the embassies in Ethiopia and Tanzania and the World Trade Center, they had managed to alienate the American people entirely, along with most of the West, and incite us to demonize them.
Each side horrendously misjudged the other. The Islamists assumed that Americans actively supported vicious tyrannies, like the Saudis’, of which they were in fact mostly unaware. So the terrorists decreed all Americans their enemies and made them so. Americans, in turn, responded by demonizing the Islamists, imagining that they, every one, are hell bent on destroying us as their fondest dream.
President G.W. Bush―never the brightest bulb in the marquee―told us that Islamists hate us and our way of life. That’s not so. What they hate is the tyrants who are oppressing them. They see us as the immovable force behind those tyrants, thwarting their every effort to dislodge them, despite decades of effort and sacrifice.
So like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, these idealists, who could not even dislodge the Egyptian or Saudi tyrants, sought to bring down the greatest empire in human history. Instead, all they did was alienate a people who, based on our own history and traditions, would have been likely (but subtle) allies if approached more kindly.
Now the smarter Muslims are wising up in three ways. First, they are getting tired of people (Al Qaeda) purportedly “helping” them by blowing them up, along with their friends and relatives, even at Muslim weddings and funerals. Second, they are coming to recognize that there is a lot of support, here in America and around the world, for what they are trying to do. No one loves a tyrant, least of all Americans.
Finally, and most important, they Arabs are recognizing what they should have known all along. No one can give them their freedom. They have to organize and struggle for it, all on their own.
Some of them will have to die. Some of them already have. But what’s the best cause for becoming a martyr? Killing a few innocent Americans and just enraging the rest of us? Or striking a blow for freedom in what could be a bloodless and relatively painless revolution like Tunisia’s or Egypt’s? It doesn’t take a genius to get the answers to those questions right.
That’s what’s happening right now. And that’s what makes Arab liberation―possibly followed soon by Persian―the most important international development after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It relies on the power of ordinary people, in their masses, seeking and demanding what most of the rest of the world has. The people seek not democracy or any particular form of government. Instead, they want only a measure of self-determination and a government that cares about ordinary people, and—if only in some rude and awkward way—seeks their advancement or at least lets them help themselves.
In this struggle, Islam is a two-edged sword. The terrorists have given it a bad name by perverting it to justify their insanely counterproductive tactics.
But real Islam doesn’t countenance murder, let alone the murder of innocents, let alone the murder of innocents indiscriminately in large numbers, let alone the murder of innocent Muslims, let alone while attending weddings or funerals. The terrorists have justified these heinous acts, anathema to any religion, by the most transparent and pernicious sophistry.
It has taken a while, but Muslims worldwide are finally coming realize how much damage bin Laden and his followers have done not only to their religion, but also to their chances of wresting a normal life from their tyrants in their lifetimes. And their beliefs and tactics are beginning to change.
So when you hear crowds of Arab patriots should “God is Great!” you shouldn’t hear a call to terrorism. You should hear a generic call to faith in a single God. And when you hear that cry at a rally for liberty and justice, you should translate it as “Thank God!”
Muslims’ God may have a different name from ours, expressed in different characters. But it’s the same one that we Americans believe in, whether we are Christians, Jews or Muslims ourselves (as increasing numbers of us are). It’s the same one that sustained our troops from Valley Forge to Iwo Jima. It’s the God that inspires men and women everywhere to seek their liberty for themselves.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not our enemy. It seeks the same thing that all patriots everywhere seek: liberty of conscience, freedom of worship and freedom to exploit and enhance one’s God-given potential. The terrorism that offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood (never the whole movement) sponsored or condoned was a mere tactic―a terribly misguided and counterproductive one―in that struggle.
Damaging America was just a mistaken means to an end: the liberation of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. That end, of course, is something that most Americans can support, although not of course the means. Now that the means is courageous, nonviolent domestic uprisings, support from the West should be overwhelming, at least from its people, if not their governments. Here France is the leader, as always where liberty is at stake.
The analogy between the First Cold War and the Second Cold War (on Terrorists) is not perfect. The Soviet tyranny was concentrated and centralized. The Arab tyrannies are diverse and dispersed. Catholicism was a positive force in liberating the Slavs. Islam has been hijacked by terrorists in a grave tactical and strategic blunder.
But the basic analogy still holds true. A people can liberate itself from its own tyrants only through its own effort. The terrorists’ mistake was assuming that the US could grant the Egyptian and Saudi people their freedom, and that it could be coerced to do so. We Americans responded with our own blunder: thinking that we must remake the Middle East in our image, primarily with military force, in order to protect ourselves. The enormous cost of the War in Iraq, both to us and to Iraqis, has revealed that blunder beyond all doubt.
But what is happening now is quite different. The multiple revolutions in the Arab world are spontaneous outpourings of popular courage, a lust for the liberty that most of the rest of the world now enjoys.
They are like the Soviet and Slavic awakening, in which captive peoples of the old Soviet Union rebelled non-violently against tyrannies and ideologies that had oppressed them and that, to maintain their power, had demonized the outside world. When the dust had settled, both the tyrannies and external terror were gone, along with the internal one.
That is what Arab liberation means for the West. And that is why it’s the most important international development since the Cold War’s end.
We are not the authors of Arab liberation. We can’t be. The Arabs must wrest their liberty from the hand of their tyrants as all other people have done, including us. We can’t even be good abettors, because we really don’t know how. We are strangers to the culture.
But if we are smart, we can speed the process in ways small and large, as we are doing in Libya. At least we can avoid doing harm and retarding the process.
We have seen the same sort of human “miracle” so recently in the Cold War’s end. We were clueless then. But now we’ve been through it once, in a case where the stakes—species self-extinction—were so much higher. So now maybe we can help the inevitable, speed it on its way, and minimize the price in blood and treasure that need be paid by all concerned.
The harder and smarter we work, the more “miraculous” things will get. Attribute it to God or Allah if you like. But smart and good people can make God’s miracles work faster.
More good news continues to come from Libya. The rebels are gaining ground, and the President has authorized Predator Drone strikes to add to NATO’s power in the theater. It’s about time. Drones can operate at lower altitudes than manned planes without endangering pilots. They therefore offer greater accuracy, fewer civilian and friendly-fire casualties, and an ability to counter Qaddafi loyalists’ common tactic of using civilians shields. And if you want to see what the fuss is all about, look at this profile of Arab youth waiting for a better life—some skeptically and many with hope.