An Arab Spring?

Cliff May
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Posted: Mar 24, 2011 11:04 AM

Readers of tea leaves, tarot cards and goat entrails may be able to predict the future. But prognostication is a skill few journalists, politicians, diplomats, and intelligence officials have demonstrated consistently over time. So while it’s clear that the Muslim world is in the throes of a major transformation, let’s not pretend we know how this story ends.

It’s possible we’re seeing an Arab spring, a democratic awakening – uprisings that will bring freedom to societies that have known only oppression. But it’s equally possible that one form of oppression will simply replace another. Will we see in the Middle East a repeat of what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989 or what happened in Iran in 1979? The American Revolution or the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution? Or will it be some mix with the outcomes in Tunisia and Bahrain markedly different from those in Libya and Egypt?

It’s comforting to believe there is a “right side to history.” But if history demonstrates anything it is that history has no preferences. History includes wars and interludes of peace, dark ages and enlightenments, cities rising and cities razed. Sometimes history marches from one age to the next. More often, it stumbles.

Though the future cannot be predicted, its course may be altered. Nazis, Fascists and Japanese militarists might have achieved world domination had Winston Churchill not replaced Neville Chamberlain as Britain’s prime minister in 1940. Were it not for Harry Truman, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, communism could have become the dominant global ideology by the end of the 20th Century.

Instead, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed. Many experts and great minds concluded there would be no more consequential ideological struggles – much less wars based on anything as arcane and irrelevant (to them) as theology. An “international community” had been created. Its members agreed on the big things and would tolerate – even celebrate – whatever differences remained. Should a dispute arise, a shared commitment to dialogue and compromise would bring “conflict resolution.” Was that not self-evidently preferable to bloodshed?

The experts and great minds paid little attention to movements based on the archaic notion that Muslims are commanded in their holy books to wage a final and decisive war – a jihad – against “unbelievers” and apostates. Then, exactly ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a small band of self-proclaimed jihadis hijacked passenger planes and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

President Bush decided this was about terrorists and extremists and so he dislodged two terrorist extremists from power. President Obama decided this was about al-Qaeda and so he doubled down in Afghanistan where the Taliban, which had been al-Qaeda’s host, was attempting to regain power.

Much of what has happened in the decade since the bloodiest foreign attacks ever on American soil would have been hard to predict. For example: Al-Qaeda is now producing an English-language, on-line magazine called Inspire which recently featured an article explaining “How to Make a Bomb in Mom’s Kitchen.” (I can barely manage an omelet.) Al-Qaeda now also produces Al-Shamikha, a magazine just for women, offering advice on “marrying mujahideen” – Muslim warriors – and how to improve your complexion. (Because inquiring minds want to know: stay indoors and keep your face covered.)

Among those who consider themselves mujahideen: the Palestinians who killed an Israeli mother, father and three small children in their home. In Gaza, ruled by Hamas, the murderers have been celebrated as heroes -- candies and pastries were handed out in the streets. In the West Bank, ruled by Fatah, there were denunciations of terrorism even as terrorists were being glorified on Palestinian Authority TV and in Palestinian schools and mosques.

But, many of the experts and great minds insist, ideology/theology cannot be the problem, cannot be the real obstacle to peace. This conflict must be about land and “occupation” and surely it can be resolved through dialogue and compromise. And if the Palestinians refuse to negotiate or make compromises, the answer is obvious: the Israelis need to make more concessions – as many as it takes. Many experts and great minds feel very strongly about this.

The rulers of Iran also see themselves as holy warriors. Every day they torture and execute dissidents and members of minority groups, convinced that such brutality is blessed by Allah. For years, they have facilitated the killing of Americans in both Iraq and Afghanistan while working hard to acquire nuclear weapons. In response, President Obama has attempted to engage them, to open up a dialogue in which reasonable compromises would be offered.

This policy has yielded no results. By contrast, economic sanctions have at least managed to focus the attention of Iran’s rulers – even though those sanctions have yet to be seriously enforced.

The lessons here are not hard to grasp yet few journalists, politicians, diplomats and intelligence officials seem to have grasped them. On the contrary, the White House is now reportedly considering an attempt to “engage” both the Taliban and Hezbollah, Iran’s overseas terrorist proxy.

David Ignatius, columnist for the Washington Post, heartily approves, saying consideration of such engagement “illustrates the ferment in U.S. thinking about a Middle East that is being transformed by democratic uprisings. … [T]he Obama administration is increasingly looking for ways to talk with adversaries and draw them into a process of dialogue. The world is changing, and perhaps so should U.S. policy.”

Fortune tellers may see the future clearly. I’m dubious that most experts and great minds can – least of all those who don’t grasp that engaging terrorists and tyrants is not a bold, new policy but only the repetition of an old, failed policy. By contrast, engaging the opponents of the terrorists and tyrant would indeed be original.