The pace of events starting a short two months ago and now lapping at the gates of Damascus has left us all breathless and even sppechless as we try to comprehend what had happened, what it means, and what it may bode for the future. One of the endeavors that inevitably follows from our intellectual disarray is the search for analogies: is what is going on in the Middle East enough like something that has happened in the past that we can draw comparisons with that past that will help us predict and possibly affect wherever these events are leading?
If such an analogy exists in any helpful way (i.e. is close enough to contemporary happenings truly to be instructive), no one has yet found it. The unfolding scene bears some resemblance to what happened two decades ago in Eastern Europe, but it is also different–different people from different cultures, the nature of who and how their oppressions had been imposed, etc. Unless one can draw an analogy with some obscure bit of Middle Eastern history (which I am certainly incapable of doing), we seem stuck. The uncomfortable result is that we do not know exactly what to do, and possibly more importantly, what the impact of whatever it is we do is on the outcome, for good or for bad. It is this uncertainty that has made our responses seem so hesitant and tentative; critics who cry for more decisive responses are either clairvoyant about the future (insights they fail to share with us) or demagogical (here’s another way to attack Obama,so let’s go for it!).
Let me suggest that our difficulty in deciding what to do is the result of at least five questions, the answers to which we either do not know or which we fear. Stating and looking at them will not solve the dilemma of policy understanding; but it may clarify the parameters of the discussion.
1. Who are these people? What has been common to all the uprisings is that they have apparently populist roots: people gather in the streets, the demonstrations grow when not suppressed, the government finally reacts with violence that fans the flames rather than dousing them, and at some point, either the government caves in or the guns come out. In either case, the question of leadership of the insurgents has been a mystery. Clearly, there are organizers, at a minimum people who view on the social media what has happened in neighboring countries and say, “Why not us?” The problem is that we (the U.S. and the West generally) apparently do not possess very much helpful information about who the leaders that could answer subsequent questions.
2. Where do they come from? Large parts of the Middle East are, of course, artificial states with competing ethnic and/or religious groups, but is it disenfranchised of oppressed minorities that are behind the uprisings? As best one can tell in places like Egypt or even Libya (an artificial state but one without notable ethnic rivarlies), the situation appear not to have these characteristics. Syria, on the other hand, does have these cleavages, and it would actually be to understand what is going in if such motivations are at play.
3. What are they there for? The universal chorus coming from the various uprisings is a call for “freedom,” but what does that mean? At the most obvious level, it means freedom from whatever authoritarian ruler at whom they have directed their ire, but that does not tell one enough about what they are FOR, only what they are against. All the movements say they want democracy, but given the scant background the region has with democratic principles, is that window dressing, or something more profound? One answer may be that they are sincere in their desires but have given very little thought to their operational meaning. In other words, they have and continue to spend a lot more energy on how to overthrow the old regime than about what to do after they succeed. If they don’t know, how are we to know, or even guess intelligently?
4. What are we doing? The outside reaction has moved slowly. It began with cheerleading from the sidelines, which worked fine (at least so far) in Egypt and Tunisia, but that has clearly not been enough in places where the government has resisted, especially violently. The most extreme reaction, of course, surrounds the UN-sanctioned military effort that, at least according to reports today (Sunday) seem to be having some impact on the fighting on the ground in favor of the insurgents. The UN mandate, of course, does not extend to influencing internal politics, only to guarnateeing humanitarian rights. Once one goes beyond that, as the UN did to its chagrin aover a half-century ago in the then Belgian Congo, and the results paralyzed UN responses to these kinds of crises as a result. Do we (the West, the UN, the U.S.) really want to get back into George Bush’s “regime changing” policy mode, albeit under the cover of international action?
5. Will the outcome of these processes be an improvement, either for the countries involved or the rest of us? This is really the $64 question, and its answer would clearly help resolve our response dilemma. Unfortunately, the answer also lies in the answers to the first four questions, and we don’t know these. Also, we lack an appropriate analogy to wrap around and help guide us. So we are left with simply listing the possibilities and hoping a good one is correct.
I will not attempt to suggest all the possibilities or which may apply to individual countries (and one of the probably safe assumptions is that the outcomes will differ by country). The most optimistic outcome is for pro-Western, pro-American democratic regimes to emerge or evolve. The insurgents, by and large, express democratic desires but are a little more circumspect about us. The most unfavorable outcomes involve the emergence of new, replacement autocracies that are even more objectionable than those they replace. Imagine, for instance, a Qadhafi who is also an extreme, fundamentalist Islamist. Nobody talks that way in the region, but anything is possible. In between are a whole range of options that are more or less deomcratic and more or less anti-western. The permutations afre seemingly endless.
Since we do not know what the answers to these questions, and especially the last one, will be, we watch what is infolding with fascination but a sense of unease. If it is true that one should generally look before one leaps and that leaping in this case means knowing what one is leaping into and what the effect will be, caution would seem to be the better part of valor. Unless, of course, one has a really good analogy we can work with.