Unfit For Liberty?

The uprisings in the Arab world have led some to suggest that the Middle East isn't "ready" to be free. They're wrong.

Nicholas Kristoff tackles the argument that has been raised both by Arab dictators and by some in the West that Arabs aren’t ready to govern themselves:

We Americans spout bromides about freedom. Democracy campaigners in the Middle East have been enduring unimaginable tortures as the price of their struggle — at the hands of dictators who are our allies — yet they persist. In Bahrain, former political prisoners have said that their wives were taken into the jail in front of them. And then the men were told that unless they confessed, their wives would promptly be raped. That, or more conventional tortures, usually elicited temporary confessions, yet for years or decades those activists persisted in struggling for democracy. And we ask if they’re mature enough to handle it?

The common thread of this year’s democracy movement from Tunisia to Iran, from Yemen to Libya, has been undaunted courage. I’ll never forget a double-amputee I met in Tahrir Square in Cairo when Hosni Mubarak’s thugs were attacking with rocks, clubs and Molotov cocktails. This young man rolled his wheelchair to the front lines. And we doubt his understanding of what democracy means?

In Bahrain, I watched a column of men and women march unarmed toward security forces when, a day earlier, the troops had opened fire with live ammunition. Anyone dare say that such people are too immature to handle democracy?

Look, there’ll be bumps ahead. It took Americans six years after the Revolutionary War to elect a president, and we almost came apart at the seams again in the 1860s. When Eastern Europe became democratic after the 1989 revolutions, Poland and the Czech Republic adjusted well, but Romania and Albania endured chaos for years. After the 1998 people power revolution in Indonesia, I came across mobs in eastern Java who were beheading people and carrying their heads on pikes.

The record is that after some missteps, countries usually pull through. Education, wealth, international connections and civil society institutions help. And, on balance, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain are better positioned today for democracy than Mongolia or Indonesia seemed in the 1990s — and Mongolia and Indonesia today are successes.

Moreover, as Kristoff points out, Americans who spout the “Arabs aren’t ready for democracy” meme are basically agreeing with the Gaddafi’s, Assad’s, and Ahmedinejad’s of the world:

It’s still a view peddled by Arab dictatorships, particularly Saudi Arabia — and, of course, by China’s leaders and just about any African despot. It’s unfortunate when Westerners are bigoted in this way, but it’s even sadder when leaders in the developing world voice such prejudices about their own people.

In the 21st century, there’s no realistic alternative to siding with people power. Prof. William Easterly of New York University proposes a standard of reciprocity: “I don’t support autocracy in your society if I don’t want it in my society.”

That should be our new starting point. I’m awed by the courage I see, and it’s condescending and foolish to suggest that people dying for democracy aren’t ready for it.

One point that Kristoff misses which I find interesting is the different reactions that you’ve seen from many on the American right to the uprising in Eqypt as compared to the ongoing uprising in Libya and 2009’s Iranian uprising. The Libyan and Iranian protesters are characterized as freedom fighters and President Obama is criticized for not speaking out more forcefully or, you know, doing “something” to help the uprising (even though it’s never made clear what exactly we could do to influence events inside nations ruled by leaders who hate us). The Egyptian protesters, though, were tools of the Muslim Brotherhood and, if you listened to Glenn Beck, the advance army of a worldwide caliphate. Additionally, in Eqypt, President Obama was criticized for doing something, in this case using our influence with a relatively friendly government to prevent a bloody crackdown and pressure a despised and discredited dictator to step aside. Why Libyans and Iranians are entitled to fight for their freedom but Egyptians are not isn’t really explained.

Yea, it’s true that the process is likely to be messy, but history rarely proceeds along the path that we would like it too. The relatively calm transition in Eastern Europe from Soviet-style dictatorship to democratic states was something of an historical anomaly. History easily could have proceeded differently but for the intervention of men like Mikhail Gorbachev who refused to use the hammer to fight what he recognized was the inevitable and irreversible collapse of the Soviet empire.

There was plenty that could have gone wrong then, and there’s plenty that could go wrong now. As Jeremy Warner writes in the Telegraph today, a revolt in Saudi Arabia could wreck havoc with world oil markets, and the world economy. But what’s the alternative? Sitting back and letting the Saud family violently crush an uprising, thus creating more resentment and an even more potent breeding ground for the radicalism that al Qaeda feeds upon? More importantly, I think the Libya situation is showing us that there’s very little that can be done to stop these uprisings once they reach critical mass. Muammar Gaddafi is inflicting brutality on his people and, still, they rise up and there’s already talk of an army making the journey from Benghazi to Tripoli to take on Gaddafi’s forces. The battle is joined, the people aren’t going to back down, and I don’t think we should want them to.

One final thought. When these uprisings are over and the Arab world has settled down, the people are going to remember who was on their side and who wasn’t Do we really want to go down in history as being on the side of the dictators, even rhetorically? For the first time in a thousand years, the Arab people are taking control of their own affairs, we should encourage that rather than telling them that they aren’t ready for the freedom we enjoy here at home.

FILED UNDER: Africa, Middle East, World Politics, , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    When these uprisings are over and the Arab world has settled down, the people are going to remember who was on their side and who wasn’t

    Frankly, I doubt it. Nothing we do in the next couple of day or weeks or months will counterbalance the support we’ve given to the authoritarian governments in these countries for, in some cases, decades. Regardless of what we do now we’ll be seen as being on the other side regardless of which side wins out in the end.

    We’re on the horns of a trilemma. We can support existing governments, support opposition movements, or butt out and forego any chance of infliuencing events. I vote for the last but both interventionism and non-interventionism has its costs.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    There’s a conflict between the USA as power player, and the USA as the country formed around the idea of individual liberty.

    When push comes to shove we have to be on the side of freedom. Realpolitik is what we sometimes do. But freedom is core character, and if we lose that we’re nothing.

    This above all: to thine own self be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man.

    I didn’t write that last bit. Some other writer.

  3. Dave,

    You’re probably right, and I generally agree that butting out is the best course going forward. If it gets much worse, the pressure to intervene to stop the slaughter in Libya will increase significantly but, even if that happens, I think the Europeans should be the ones to lead the way. This is really more their concern than ours, after all, and now would be a good time for them to act like adults.

    Ultimately, I don’t think there’s much we can do in the region that will lead to a positive outcome. Whatever course this takes, it will take it’s own course. I’m not sure it will entirely beneficial to our interests but that will be a problem we’ll have to deal with.

  4. john personna says:

    lol, the word “iraq” does not appear in this page.

    sad, because a failure to understand the possible was at the root of neocon failure.

    these wouldn’t be the same chaps prattling about achievable futures now, would it?

  5. john personna says:

    (For what it’s worth I’m down with “self-determination” and recognize it not as a gift, but as a responsibility. These folk should certainly try. It’s another thing for us to blindly hitch our cart to their efforts. We might want to stand back a ways.)

  6. Have A Nice G.A. says:

    The Egyptian protesters, though, were tools of the Muslim Brotherhood and, if you listened to Glenn Beck, the advance army of a worldwide caliphate.

    Sigh…..

  7. steve says:

    Let me second Dave. On Egypt, it was all about Israel. The right seemed to feel that Mubarak was Israel’s great protector. I think that if you read people who spent time in Egypt, Goldberg’s articles are a good example, Mubarak fostered a lot of hatred towards Israel and Jews through his official media as a way to distract from his corrupt government. He was not a friend of Israel, just a dictator willing to take billions from the US to maintain the peace treaty.

    Steve

  8. anjin-san says:

    > I think the Europeans should be the ones to lead the way. This is really more their concern than ours

    Europe has great public transportation and cars that get excellent mileage. You might want to rethink that.

    Of course there is the issue that we have been supporting brutal dictators in the middle east for decades to keep the oil flowing. I guess that comes down to believing that freedom is the cornerstone of what we are about or thinking that it is simply an often useful talking point.

  9. Matt B says:

    One other thing to think about is what is meant by “democracy.” As history shows, it is a particularly flexible form/metaphor of government. Its not so much can democracies exist in these countries, as what expression will it take (secular vs. religious, is an example of just one of many angles).

    Ultimately, what at least one mode of conservatives really want seems to be, not surprisingly, “stability” biased towards US interests. The current unrest demonstrates how much of that regional “stability” was based on a house of cards. For as powerful as the House of Saud is, their control has been, at least in part, bought through their active exportation of their home-grown revolutionaries to other war zones (to fight the “far” enemy) in various locations.

    Withdrawing from the politics of the region suddenly refocuses on the “near” enemy (i.e. the House itself). Time will tell if this will bring change.

    Though, the ongoing concern about oil, in particular, also goes to show *exactly* how interconnected we all are.

  10. john personna says:

    One other thing to think about is what is meant by “democracy.”

    This is no small thing, because the average person has a gut feeling that democratic countries must be aligned, and politicians play to this.

    I chose “self-determination” above, as kind of a super-set to “democracy,” but it isn’t a sure thing what it means.

    Was the Iranian revolution an example of self-determination? If most Iranians thought so, then yeah, it was.

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    Michael:

    Let me introduce another quotation into this conversation. This is from John Quincy Adams’s speech of July 4, 1821. Rather than making you plow through its entire length I’ll cite the relevant part here:

    Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

    There are both leftwing and rightwing interventionists. I side with neither of them and it’s how I reconcile the tensions to which you refer. However, I recognize that non-interventionism has risks and costs and it would take a very long time to re-educate people so we could mitigate the former and optimize the latter.

  12. John Burgess says:

    I think the Arab world is ready for self-determination, but that it’s going to be very messy and potentially dangerous for some years to come.

    For all the young supporters of freedom, I’ve not actually seen much in the way of accepting responsibility for things in life. There’s a whole lot of lingering anti-colonialism in public discourse, even though colonialism has been dead of 50 years. There’s tons of ‘If only Israel didn’t…’ or ‘It’s the CIA acting in the background’ that pollutes politics (not that it’s absent from blog comments here, of course). There are too many unrealistic expectations and way too little willingness to accommodate others, whether they’re different sects, or ethnic groups, or even tribes.

    “Let freedom ring.” Just don’t expect a sweet tone or much in the way of tidy governance…

  13. Dave Schuler says:

    On the messiness to which John refers above. For the last five or six decades we’ve always known whom to call in the various Middle Eastern countries in case of trouble (whichever autocrat was in charge). If the independence movement in MENA succeeds, I suspect that there will be decades or generations before matters will be so clear again. Indeed, I can’t help but wonder if the political situation in, say, Egypt is so fluid, diffuse, and opaque that there is never a right answer about whom to call.

    IMO another argument in favor of non-interference.

  14. Matt B says:

    Dave… thanks for that Adams Quote! Pretty much FTW.

  15. Americans who spout the “Arabs aren’t ready for democracy” meme are basically agreeing with the Gaddafi’s, Assad’s, and Ahmedinejad’s of the world

    We’re kinda being presented with a false dilemma here, between one group saying that Arab societies are fundamentally incapable of being liberal democracies and one that thinks that all we need to do is hold some elections and these societies will become ilberal democracies overnight.

    The western world took almost 500 years to move from absolute monarchies to modern republics. Widespread voting was one of the last steps in that process, not the first. What’s more important is that during that time, numerous institutions evolved which are necessary for a modern society to work properly.

    So while I’m glad to see Mubarak overthrown, I also think it’s naive to assume all we need to do now is call an election in a few months and declare victory. If we really want to see fundamental reforms, we need to focus more on the mechanism by which those institutions come into being.

    So to summarize: I don’t think Arabs are ready for full democracy. Unlike the Gaddafi’s, Assad’s, and Ahmedinejad’s of the world, however, I think they could be if the work was done to prepare them for it, which their current leaders are not doing.

  16. anjin-san says:

    > one that thinks that all we need to do is hold some elections and these societies will become ilberal democracies overnight.

    So who exactly said that? I can understand wanting to dumb down the position generally held by Democrats to get it more on par with the right, but you are going to have to support that statement..

  17. It’s not a left/right thing. The neoconservative faith in the magic of electons is one of the reasons we’re having so much trouble in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    It’s not so much as “who says that” as a case of looking what everyone does. All of our effort seems to focus on election monitoring and worrying about how long it will be until Country X holds elections. In Egypt, so instance, the big debate seems to be whether to hold elections in two months or in six months. Who’s worrying about setting up an independent judiciary? Who’s worrying about a free press? Who’s worrying about de-politicing the police and military? Who’s worrying about reducing corruption in the civil service?

    My point is those thing need to happen BEFORE elections can happen. Our current strategy seems to be that elections will spontaneously cause all those institutional corrections. But without that sort of stuff in place to begin with, elections just become different groups fighting over whose turn it is to hit everyone else with the hammer.

  18. michael reynolds says:

    Dave:

    I belong to a third interventionist group, the John Wesley Hardin school. Hardin always claimed he never shot anyone who didn’t “need killing.” Gaddafi needs killing.

    I would certainly oppose an invasion of Libya. God forbid. But I believe if a clear shot were to present itself — a cruise missile firing solution — I could see taking the shot and not feeling too badly about it.

    I suppose I’m a humanitarian interventionist, but only when it can be done without harm to our own core goals.

  19. I think you’re over estimating the importance of Gaddafi the man. The problem in Libya isn’t one guy, but the organization he is incharge of. Eliminating that one man while leaving the rest of his regime in place would just result in the same instutitional machinery grinding on with a new “Gaddafi” at the helm.

  20. Also, considering Hardin is famous for shooting someone for snoring, that seems an odd role model for one’s foreign policy.

  21. john personna says:

    But I believe if a clear shot were to present itself — a cruise missile firing solution — I could see taking the shot and not feeling too badly about it.

    If I recall correctly, we tried that once, and killed a small daughter.

  22. Dave Schuler says:

    If I recall correctly, we tried that once, and killed a small daughter.

    Which returns us to the point with which I opened this comment thread. Even if we were to unilaterally and illegally lob a cruise missile at Qaddafi I don’t believe we’d be lauded for having removed a dictator but rather castigated for the innocents killed and property damaged and for the irresponsibility and lawlessness of our highhanded cowboy approach to international relations.

  23. Dave,

    One guy that was being interviewed on CNN last week who’s name I forget said something like this about U.S. intervention in the Middle East — “we never get credit if we do something good, but they always remember if we do something bad,”

    To me that’s another reason to treat all of this the way you suggest and just stay out of it

  24. michael reynolds says:

    Also, considering Hardin is famous for shooting someone for snoring, that seems an odd role model for one’s foreign policy.

    I snore. If my wife loses it some night and puts one in me I hereby refuse to prosecute.