The Arab Spring, Ten Months In
It seems hard to believe, but the Arab Spring is not even eleven months old. An unknown Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi struck the spark (literally) by igniting himself in protest on December 17, 2010.
So far, the conflagration that Bouazizi ignited has made the most significant and positive changes in human affairs since the Russians wised up and threw off Communism of their own free will. Here’s the score so far:
|Arab Spring Results So Far|
|Tyrants deposed or killed: three|
|Nations liberated: three (Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya)|
|Dictators tottering: two more (in Yemen and Syria)|
|Elapsed time: less than eleven months|
|Wars caused: one|
|Western lives lost: none|
|US and NATO expense: a few billion dollars|
It’s instructive to compare what the Arab Spring has accomplished with what unilateral exercise of American power has accomplished in ten times the time:
|Results of Unilateral American Power|
|Tyrants deposed or killed: one (Saddam)|
|Nations liberated: maybe one (Iraq)|
|Dictators tottering: none|
|Elapsed time: a decade|
|Wars caused: two|
|Western lives lost: 7,565 and counting|
|US and NATO expense: over one trillion dollars|
In this age of moral relativism and “spin,” these raw facts show three things beyond question. First, there are right ways and wrong ways to accomplish an objective. Second, the right way costs immeasurably less in lives, blood, toil, dollars, tears, and sweat. Being smart really matters.
Third and most important, no matter how noble it may be, a good end never justifies bad means. In the last century, we Americans and other Westerners disparaged Marxism and Communism for believing that it does. Now the shoe is on the other foot. We freedom-loving Americans have caused no end of misery for ourselves (including a broken economy) and no end of havoc for others by trying to do good things the wrong way. How you do things really matters.
The irony is that both Dubya and our current President were and are idealists. Dubya had a psychiatrist’s grab-bag of complex motivations for invading Iraq, including a desire to prove himself to a skeptical father and a desire to avenge Saddam’s attempt on his father’s life. But among those mixed motives was a sincere and noble desire to bring liberty and modernity to a still-medieval part of the world that still has a resource we need to make the modern world run.
It was not always thus. The Marshall Plan was one of the most enlightened and effective foreign policies in human history. After sharing the suffering and sacrifice of World War II, we could have turned back to isolationism. But we didn’t. We spent our hard-earned money to build up Western democracies in devastated Europe and occupied Japan. In so doing, we nurtured the soft flame of the Western Enlightenment, which today has begun to light the world.
But after that, and in other parts of the world, our intelligence faltered. We still had good intentions, or at least we gave them lip service. We purported to espouse liberty and self-determination for all peoples. But in practice any tyrant who publicly damned Communism (no matter what he did in private) and kept the oil flowing was good enough for us.
Dubya was our first president to try to change all that. With the goading of then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he actually announced the new policy several times. I noted it on this blog and gave it credit for his win over John Kerry, despite Dubya’s gross mismanagement of the both war in the Iraq and domestic policy.
But means matter. Dubya tried to realize his noble and idealistic policy like a combination of an untutored child and a West-Texas sheriff revived from the nineteenth century. He actually said of bin Laden, “wanted, dead or alive.” He acted unilaterally and heedless of international conditions, starting two wars that no one wanted, one on false pretenses. And in the process, he announced the asinine “Bush Doctrine,” namely, that those who harbor terrorists are our sworn enemies. In so doing, he implicitly declared war on some sixty countries, including ones (like Yemen and Pakistan) trying vainly to suppress terrorism, and others (like Somalia) that were and are failed states.
In contrast, our current President had and has precisely the same goals but is acting like an intelligent adult, like the leaders who brought us the Marshall Plan.
He can’t take credit for the Arab Spring. No American can. The Arab Spring is a creation of the Arab people, who have suffered abysmal government and truncated futures for far too long. But after a little dithering, our President was smart enough to catch the wave and is now riding it to the far-off destination of Arab liberation and a better world.
The difference is one of brains versus brawn, finesse versus brute force, understanding versus bald desire. And the results, summarized in the tables above, show how intelligence matters.
Will there be bumps in the road ahead? Of course. The future of Libya is no more certain than the future of Iraq, which is still precarious despite our massive investment of blood and treasure.
But this time, we’re doing things the right way. We’re acknowledging what we Americans held to be “self-evident” in our own Declaration of Independence. Liberation is up to each people alone. It can be neither forced nor granted by others. Others can help, as Lafayette and the French did with our own liberation two centuries ago. But the spark and the suffering have to come from the people themselves.
And this time we’re unambiguously on the right side: the side of ordinary people who want their share of the coming global Golden Age, with free markets, free speech, and basic human rights. That side has been the (slowly) winning side since the Western Enlightenment began half a millennium ago. It’s also the natural side for us, and it’s about time we put ourselves firmly on it.
But to be on that side, we sometimes have to let foreign peoples lead, at least in their own affairs.
That, I think, is the meaning of the President’s announcement yesterday that we really are pulling out of Iraq. We have supposed the Iraqis to be sovereign ever since 2004, but we haven’t always acted that way. Now the President is treating them as sovereign adults. We wanted legal immunity for our troops; they wouldn’t (or politically couldn’t) give it. So we’re leaving.
Iraq’s noisy and chaotic politics are schizophrenic about us. Because we acted so clumsily and disastrously in our invasion, the Iraqis can’t quite figure out whether to applaud us as liberators or despise us as invaders.
And so we’re leaving and letting them figure it out. Our much-abused troops will mostly be home by Christmas, and the President’s campaign promise will be fulfilled.
But I don’t for a moment believe domestic politics or his campaign promise was the root of the President’s decision. Our troops can come back to Iraq any time they’re needed and invited. Some will remain, out of harm’s way, just across the border in Kuwait.
What the President did was to give an unambiguous signal to the entire world. The era of unilateral American action is over. The West-Texas sheriff is gone, and a successor (Rick Perry) is highly unlikely.
What we have instead is a mature and intelligent leader of the world’s largest economy and greatest military power (still). He and we are now firmly and intelligently on the side of ordinary people worldwide, ready to help them ride the waves they themselves create to liberation and a better life. But they have to make the waves themselves.
P.S. As I was publishing this post, it occurred to me that the President is taking the same tack at home as abroad. I do not for a minute believe his heart is really with Wall Street. The whole arc of his life speaks to the contrary.
Yet, as a realist, the President knows he cannot overcome thirty years of “government bad―greed good” propaganda all by himself, let alone in a single presidential term. He knows that real change always comes from the grass roots, whether in Arabia or here at home.
That’s why the Occupy Wall Street movement has such promise. It may be the beginning of a genuine grass-roots movement to throw the welfare-queen bankers out and restore regulated capitalism here at home.
With the Arab Spring in full flower, can an American Spring be far behind? Winter is almost upon us, but hope, like spring, blooms eternal.