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

18 April 2011

Arab Liberation: Which Side Are We On?

    “Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?” --- Bob Dylan

You have to love the French. They know how to live. They invented the term “affaire d’amour.” Their cuisine, cheese and wine define quality. Their countryside is a rare delight. And with efficient public transit and safe nuclear power at 77%, they have the cleanest skies in Europe. For peaceful enjoyment of life, without troubling others, they are unsurpassed.

The French also love liberty. The were the first to endorse our own American Revolution. Through their Marquis de Lafayette, they helped us win our War of Independence. Their war against King John helped the Barons wrest the Magna Carta from him and found Anglo-American self-government. And the French were the first to recognize the Libyan rebels in their struggle for freedom.

Why is it so hard for the self-described “leader of the free world” to go and do likewise? Why do we, who saved the world from Nazism and Imperial Japanese aggression, who stood a scary half-century vigil against the scourge of militant Communism, now find it so hard to support freedom for all Arabs?

It’s a puzzlement.

At the moment, we like to pick and choose. Tunisians are “good” as free people, because they are mostly secular and their women don’t wear veils. Egyptians are risky, because the Muslim Brotherhood is their invention and a likely future political party. But ultimately they also are “good” because their army is strong, conservative, and well organized and unlikely to let things get out of hand. Libyans are even more risky—we don’t know much about them—but they, too, are “good” because their tyrant is crazy and has cut the flow of oil.

But as for the others, forget them! Bahrainis can’t free themselves because, well, the Saudi Princes don’t want them to, and the Saudi Princes are our tyrants. Syrians are risky because their tyranny is very stable and their tyrant is very tough and very conservative. Never mind that he supports Hezbollah and Hamas and probably had the late, senior Hariri murdered. Never mind that he keeps Lebanon divided, supports terrorism, and foments hatred against Israel and the West. The devil we know is better than the devil that may follow him.

And then there’s the worst tyranny of all: the Saudi Princes’. We don’t see it as the worst because it’s our tyranny, supported by our arms and oil money and consistent national policy for two generations. But a tyranny it is, and one of the worst on Earth.

What kind of Americans—if they knew the truth and didn’t fear for their gasoline—would support a medieval family monarchy that rules absolutely, with the aid of the most ruthless and effective secret police outside of North Korea? that keeps women completely covered up and uneducated and won’t even let foreign women drive? that supports and encourages Islamic extremism and terrorism around the globe by financing madrassas that teach no useful skills but push extremist Wahhabi Islam and hatred of the West and Israel? that keeps its own Arab people uneducated, unemployed and servile unless they belong to the royal family? that maintains legions of foreign workers in abject conditions of near slavery to run the oil fields and support the royal family’s obscene wealth? that pretends to be pious Muslims at home but leads the most promiscuous, dissipated and immoral lifestyle in its secret, gated mansions abroad?

Arabs themselves don’t make these invidious distinctions. They all want to be free. Al Jazeera and the Internet have opened their eyes. They know that, outside of central Africa, their own tyrants have made them the most backward, deprived and poverty-stricken people on Earth. They see what the rest of us have, and they want it. And that includes the freedom to live, work, worship and prosper in their own way. Increasingly, they won’t let self-serving tyrants stand in their way.

So as Saudi tanks rush over the causeway into Bahrain, the question is what will we do about it. Which side are we on?

It’s not enough to say the Arab “street” loves Islam and hates Israel. Perhaps it loves Islam so much because it cannot love itself or improve its own condition. And Islam, after all, has two faces. Who’s to say that love of God and self-improvement won’t replace perpetual jihad when freedom makes self-improvement possible?

As for hatred of Israel, who stokes it? The tyrants encourage that hate, and the street responds, because expressing hatred for its real oppressors results in surveillance, jail and execution. Free the Arab street and watch it change, as the focus shifts from alleged foreign enemies to improving people’s lives.

It’s also not enough to point to Yugoslavia and its ethnic splinters. The conventional wisdom that all fell apart when the Soviet boot stepped off is a bit simplistic. For it took another vicious tyrant, Slobodan Milošević, to start the conflagration. Now that he is gone, the broken Balkans are at peace.

And as for the oil wells, why worry? They are an obvious prize. But they are valuable only if they work and produce oil. The only person in human history ever to destroy them willfully was Saddam—a tyrant so brutal and unpredictable that we ginned up a war on false pretenses to remove him. The people of Iraq didn’t destroy those Kuwaiti oil wells. Need I say more?

I don’t mean to imply that the revolutions, let alone our part in them, will be simple. Even Libya isn’t simple, despite universal contempt for Qaddafi and our overwhelming military force. Exerting our influence in various ways will be difficult and complicated. We will need finesse and sometimes even Machiavellian duplicity.

But the world and the Arab street have to know where we stand. There is no question that the revolutions are real. There is little question that they will triumph eventually, whether in months or in decades. When that happens, we must have been on the right side of history.

The Arabs and their fellow Muslims constitute nearly one-quarter of humanity. When the dust settles and the Arabs are free at last, what do we want them and their fellow Muslims to remember? Do we want them to think of us as liberators or as oppressors who sold them into slavery for a barrel of oil?

And what about us Americans? What should we think about ourselves? Will our self-image survive supporting plutocrats at home and oil tyrants abroad? I don’t think so.

Nor would Thomas Jefferson. “The tree of libery,” he said, “must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” How much better for us when our own patriots need not shed blood, but need only express their firm support and put their shoulders to the wheel.

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