Friday, April 13, 2012

Arabs Need Time and Not Miracles

I haven't jumped on President Obama too much during the Arab Spring. Other than for some tactical issues in Egypt and regarding whether we should arm Syrian rebels, I haven't blamed Obama for the Islamist-friendly trends in Egypt and Libya, or the pressures Islamists have put on Tunisia.

The fact is, oppressive regimes that stoked Islamist teachings to control their people and regime opponents who seized on more radical Islamist teachings to rally supporters made the end of oppressive regimes both an opportunity and a threat. The idea that supporting Mubarak or any other autocrat could have prevented Islamist gains is false. It would only put off the day of reckoning and maybe make the Islamists stronger as they gained credibility as the only alternative to autocrats.

The funny thing is, Bush was right about this problem all along:

In the wake of 9/11, the White House openly repudiated the longstanding conventional wisdom that U.S.-backed autocratic regimes in the Middle East served as bulwarks against the regional and international security threat posed by radical Islamism. Al Qaeda was then a largely Saudi and Egyptian network, its leadership drawn primarily from disgruntled subjects of the Arab world's two most powerful pro-American governments. The Bush administration quickly recognized that authoritarianism had swelled the ranks of radical Islamist movements by traumatizing Arab citizens and eradicating alternate channels of political expression, while Washington's longstanding support for this state of affairs infused them with hatred of America.

To make matters worse, Arab regimes typically sought to co-opt Islamists by introducing illiberal religious dogma into education, civil law, and media, allowing them to advance their long-term goal of Islamizing society in exchange for short-term political quietism. Those who persisted in subversive activity were typically imprisoned and tortured, then released into exile to seek other paths to martyrdom.

This is a long-term problem and not one that will be solved with a single Twitter revolution that leads people to elect leaders who will promptly debate bike path issues and other things beloved in advanced Western countries. That is why all along during the Arab Spring I've advocated that we focus on the process and not the outcome. As long as we can make the second election in these Arab Spring countries reasonably fair, the odds of Islamists having to justify their policies to the voters will be higher. Teach them how to elect good men and don't worry to much about teaching them to elect good men.

Look, I was fine supporting the autocrats during the Cold War. Then our biggest enemy was the Soviet Union and we needed friends even if they were SOBs to defeat that main threat. Once we won the Cold War, that need ended. I remember thinking that we should have taken the chance of letting Islamists win in Algeria in the early 1990s rather than back the government in the bloody civil war that followed from keeping Islamists out. Algeria was away from the Persian Gulf and Israel, so why not see how that turned out (and give Arabs the chance to see how Islamists can mis-rule if they didn't moderate).

If elections don't turn out well in Egypt or Libya, it isn't a reason to defend keeping Arabs in misery under despots until the end of time. This takes time, people. And our continued attention after the stirring sights of people marching in central squares fade from our televisions will be important in helping bend governments and societies to rule of law and real freedom.