The truth is that the United States has been behind the curve not only in Tunisia and Egypt for the last few weeks, but in the entire Middle East for decades. We supported corrupt autocrats as long as they kept oil flowing and weren’t too aggressive toward Israel. Even in the last month, we sometimes seemed as out of touch with the region’s youth as a Ben Ali or a Mubarak. Recognizing that crafting foreign policy is 1,000 times harder than it looks, let me suggest four lessons to draw from our mistakes:
1.) Stop treating Islamic fundamentalism as a bogyman and allowing it to drive American foreign policy. American paranoia about Islamism has done as much damage as Muslim fundamentalism itself.
We tie ourselves in knots when we act as if democracy is good for the United States and Israel but not for the Arab world. For far too long, we’ve treated the Arab world as just an oil field.
2.) We need better intelligence, the kind that is derived not from intercepting a president’s phone calls to his mistress but from hanging out with the powerless. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, there was a painful post-mortem about why the intelligence community missed so many signals, and I think we need the same today.
3.) New technologies have lubricated the mechanisms of revolt. Facebook and Twitter make it easier for dissidents to network. Mobile phones mean that government brutality is more likely to end up on YouTube, raising the costs of repression. The International Criminal Court encourages dictators to think twice before ordering troops to open fire.
Maybe the most critical technology — and this is tough for a scribbler like myself to admit — is television. It was Arab satellite television broadcasts like those of Al Jazeera that broke the government monopoly on information in Egypt. Too often, Americans scorn Al Jazeera (and its English service is on few cable systems), but it played a greater role in promoting democracy in the Arab world than anything the United States did.
4.) Let’s live our values. We pursued a Middle East realpolitik that failed us. Condi Rice had it right when she said in Egypt in 2005: “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.”
I don’t know which country is the next Egypt. Some say it’s Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Syria or Saudi Arabia. Others suggest Cuba or China are vulnerable. But we know that in many places there is deep-seated discontent and a profound yearning for greater political participation. And the lesson of history from 1848 to 1989 is that uprisings go viral and ricochet from nation to nation. Next time, let’s not sit on the fence.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Living Our Values
Nick Kristof writes concerning what the US stance toward the Arab world needs to be: