Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

22 October 2011

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.


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  • At Sat Oct 29, 10:30:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Frances said…

    Hi Jay,

    I very much enjoy your well-researched essays, and this one seems more optimistic than some of your other ones about the economic disaster hanging over all of our heads. Barack Obama couldn't possibly wave a magic wand and wipe out the effects of the economic crash (which occured before he even took office), but it seems that some, perhaps a majority, of Americans are blaming him for everything. But that's always the way in politics. Politicians who don't deserve it take credit for the prosperity brought about by a previous administration, but also take the blame for the bumbling of previous administrations.

    Hopefully, Obama will win another term and will have a chance to help bring about the fundamental changes needed in the financial sector.


  • At Sun Dec 04, 10:25:00 AM EST, Blogger jay said…

    Dear Frances,

    I couldn’t agree more, on both counts: (1) my optimism regarding the Arab Spring and (2) the utter unfairness of popular memes about Obama.

    Sometimes it seems that human affairs, writ large, run in cycles. Arab/Muslim culture and (if you believe Gavin Menzies’ 1435) Chinese culture helped spark the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in the West, which led to the dominance of European culture for about half a millennium.

    Now the wheel is turning. Europe and its young scion, our country, are in decline. Yet the culture of science, technology, free enterprise and democracy that we developed is energizing China and the Islamic world anew. The Arab Spring is just that energizing process applied to the Islamic world’s ancient core in Greater Arabia.

    Religion, it seems to me, has a very small role to play in this massive global transformation. It certainly does in China, which has never suffered from the disease of true belief, except in its brief flirtation with Communism. Even in the Muslim world, Islam only appears to be rising because in many countries the mosque is the only arguably viable social or political institution. But the real forces at play are globalization, science/technology, modern communication, free enterprise and democracy.

    Islam, it seems to me, will eventually play much the same role in Greater Arabia as Catholicism does in France, Spain and Mexico today, or as Islam does in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. Unfortunately, Islamophobia in the West probably won’t die until that transformation is virtually complete.

    As for Obama, I think he will win in 2012, as I’ve already said. Newt is even more (much more!) of a jerk than Mitt: Mitt is jerky only in his utterances and flip-flopping, not his actions, while Newt is a flaming jerk in both. Both men are unelectable, barring some unanticipated economic catastrophe or perhaps another major terrorist attack.

    What I worry about is Congress. If Obama can’t take both Houses with him, all his character, intelligence and patience may go for nought. But as he says, it’s up to us, not him, especially those of us who can see what’s really at stake.



  • At Sun Dec 04, 02:05:00 PM EST, Blogger George Carty said…

    What would you say to someone who claims that the West will never permit the Arab world to modernize, because a modernized Arab world would be capable of putting an end to Zionist Israel?

    I've spent a bit of time on the Middle East Reality blog (warning: very anti-Israel), but I'm currently unsure how to counter the arguments of "Lidia" (who seems to be a Marxist/Third-Worldist type -- inherently anti-western).

    Sorta ironic that I'm getting into such a mess, when you dismissed Henry George's belief system as "a variant of Marxism" on the "Us Against Them" post (even though Henry George didn't understand German and wrote at a time when Marx's works hadn't yet been translated in English).

  • At Fri Dec 09, 01:27:00 PM EST, Blogger jay said…

    Dear George,

    I'd say that's utter nonsense for two reasons. First, a modernized Arab world will no longer want to put and end to Israel, Zionist or not. Instead, having the first real opportunity to do so in decades or centuries, it will want to improve its own condition. Doing that will eventually involve doing business with Israel as one of the most advanced countries in the region.

    Second, the West couldn't keep the Arab/Muslim world down even if it wanted to, which most of it doesn't. Doing that would be like stopping the tides. The West's "ability" to control events (including development) in that part of the world was always a vain illusion, as were Arabs'/Islamists' views that the West is responsible for their backwardness. Both views put a thin film of plausibility over an ocean of self-delusion.

    As for an "anti-Israel" site, I don't have time for anything "anti." I try to encourage the good things in both Israel and Pakistan and discourage the bad, which in both cases arise out of an overemphasis on religion more appropriate to the ninth century than the twenty-first.

    Despite Netanyahu's good command of English, his basic approach to governance, it seems to me, is "God gave us Judea and Samaria and we're going to keep them!" It's hard for me to say how much I detest that attitude. But Netanyahu (thank God!) is not Israel. Far less does he reflect the views of Jews outside of Israel, including me.

    Like polls of Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank, polls of Jews inside and outside Israel say they want peace by substantial majorities. The trick is to get majority rule and marginalize the extremists before they blow the whole region up.

    So no, I'm not "anti" anything, Israel or otherwise. I'm pro-human.


  • At Fri Dec 09, 01:43:00 PM EST, Blogger jay said…

    Dear George,

    Just one brief response on Henry George, and then I'll let it rest. We may have to agree to disagree.

    Although I haven't “practiced” physics or other science for years, I still consider myself a scientist. To me, people like George, Marx, Engels, and Freud are among the rear guard of the a priori thinkers who once dominated human thought before the scientific revolution. I think of Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin, Einstein and (in economics) Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes (among many others) as scientists.

    This difference is that those in the scientist list paid as much attention to careful observation and (where possible) experiment as to what was going on inside their heads. That simple difference catapulted us humans from fire, superstition and religion into electricity, atomic energy and the Internet.

    So whether George would have called himself a Marxist or not is irrelevant. He was an inside-the-head thinker whose solipsistic musings (like those of Marx, Engels and Freud) have limited, if any, relevance in our scientific age. The fact that none of his work was quantitative only decreases its relevance and importance today.

    The best you might say about him (and the others of his ilk) is that they got lucky. They managed, by intuition alone, to come up with some (but far from all!) of the results that modern economists produce with fanatically precise and detailed observations, some early attempts at experiment, and a whole bunch of math that people like George never knew.


  • At Sun Dec 18, 02:43:00 PM EST, Blogger Arnold Evans said…

    Hi. It's Arnold Evans from Middle East Reality.

    George Carty asked what I thought about your response to a question of his here. I answered on my blog and figured I'd leave my answer here as well.

    1) Egypt's voters and Saudi Arabia's would be more pro-Palestine than US voters are pro-Israel. So the only question would be how could their governments act on that direction. Saudi Arabia by itself could prevent Israel from functioning as a normal state until it accepts Arab demands, and those demands easily could include returning refugees and their descendants.

    Israel as an enforced Jewish majority political state is not viable unless at least Saudi Arabia and also many other countries in the region are ruled by a pro-US dictators.

    2) If you're saying the US cannot maintain pro-US dictatorships in states like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and others even if it wanted to, I don't know how to respond to that. Imagine how someone in 1911 would sound saying that Great Britain could not control the Indian Raj even if it wanted to. Crazy right? That's how that sounds.

  • At Sun Dec 18, 04:26:00 PM EST, Blogger jay said…

    Dear Arnold,

    Thanks for trying to set up a dialogue between your blog and mine. But I have to admit that George Carty put me off my feed by describing your blog as “anti-Israel.” As I said in my reply to him, I’m not “anti-anything, Israel or otherwise. I’m pro-human.”

    Sometimes that makes me support Israel, although less so lately, with Netanyahu in power. Sometimes it makes me support Palestine, although I’m Jewish. And very often lately, it makes me support the Arabs, who are in the process of winning their own freedom and dignity with great courage and teaching the rest of the world how.

    As for your comment, I’m at a loss how to respond to it. My blog does not deal with raw opinions, only opinion derived logically from facts, many of which I link to independent sources. As far as I can tell, there is not a single fact in your comment. There are predictions, assertions (which I find false, half-true or ambiguous), and a question, but not a single fact that I can recognize as such.

    But to respond in kind, I’ll detail my disagreement with your comment.

    In your point 1), you fail to distinguish between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which are vastly different countries with wildly different histories and different presents. You might be right about Saudi Arabia, which was the source of all but one of the 9/11 hijackers and which, for decades, has been the most virulent supporter of Wahhabi extremism worldwide. But I don’t think you’re right about Egypt, whose people are far more secular, educated and worldly, as the recent “soft” revolution (still in progress) proves. Now that they have a chance, I think Egyptians will focus on improving their society and their lots in life and eventually forget about hate, whether of Israel or the US.

    As for your third sentence under 1), I completely disagree. If your point is SA’s virtual control of the world oil market, it is a global market. So SA could not effectively boycott Israel without boycotting the rest of the world and causing a global depression. (All Western recipients would be happy to transship oil to Israel, or simply to substitute Saudi oil for oil from other sources, which then could go to Israel.) If your point is war, I don’t see how SA could challenge Israel’s ultramodern air force or nuclear weapons. If you have in mind any other means by which SA “could prevent Israel from functioning as a normal state,” I’d like to hear about them.

    As for 2), I think your answer lies in a) our (US) extremely costly enterprise in Iraq, which no one will be likely ever to repeat, and b) the Arab Spring, which no one but Arabs can control.

    As for the Raj, I think you’ve got your analogical date wrong. If you want to make an analogy, it’s more like 1946 right now, not 1911. The revolutions throughout North Africa are already well advanced. If you think the US can control them, other than very indirectly through support and inspiration, you give us and our CIA far more credit than they deserve.



  • At Mon Dec 19, 01:40:00 PM EST, Blogger George Carty said…

    Just a minor correction on 9/11: there were actually four non-Saudi hijackers:

    * Muhammad Atta (kamikaze pilot of American Flight 11, Egyptian)
    * Marwan al-Shehhi (kamikaze pilot of United Flight 175, Emirati)
    * Fayez Banihammad (United Flight 175, Emirati)
    * Ziad Jarrah (kamikaze pilot of United Flight 93, Lebanese)

  • At Mon Dec 26, 01:15:00 PM EST, Blogger jay said…

    Dear George,

    I just checked your comment on the CIA Website, and you are right. Thanks for the correction.

    I try to check all the facts on this blog. But this time I'm afraid I succumbed to a popular meme. I can't promise it won't happen again, but I'll try.




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