Newsweek: Why are Americans cheering the Arab revolution?


So as you watch revolution sweeping through the Arab world (and potentially beyond), remember these three things about non-American revolutions:

* They take years to unfold. It may have seemed like glad confident morning in 1789, 1917, and 1949. Four years later it was darkness at noon.

• They begin by challenging an existing political order, but the more violence is needed to achieve that end, the more the initiative passes to men of violence—Robespierre, Stalin, and the supremely callous Mao himself.

• Because neighboring countries feel challenged by the revolution, internal violence is soon followed by external violence, either because the revolution is genuinely threatened by foreigners (as in the French and Russian cases) or because it suits the revolutionaries to blame an external threat for domestic problems (as when China intervened in the Korean War).

To which an American might reply: Yes, but was all this not true of our revolution too? The American Revolution was protracted: Five years elapsed between the Declaration of Independence and Yorktown. It was violent. And it was, of course, resisted from abroad. Yet the scale of the violence in the American Revolution was, by the standards of the other great revolutions of history, modest. Twenty times as many Frenchmen were killed in battle between 1792 and 1815 as Americans between 1775 and 1783. And, as Maya Jasanoff points out in her brilliant new book, Liberty’s Exiles, the losers in the American Revolution were not guillotined, or purged, or starved to death. Most of them simply left the 13 rebel colonies for more stable parts of the British Empire and got on with their lives.

There were other important differences, too. The people who made the American Revolution were, by 18th-century standards, exceptionally well-off and well-educated. People in Libya today are closer to the sans-culottes of the Paris back streets, the lumpenproletariat of the Petrograd slums, or the illiterate peasants who flocked to Mao’s standard. And that is why the likelihood of large-scale and protracted violence is so much greater in the Arab world today than it ever was in North America in the 1770s. Poor, ill-educated young men. Around 40 million of them.

Of course, the author suggests that we should have done in the Middle East what we did in central and eastern Europe during the Soviet days – actively support pro-democracy movements trying to overthrow the established communist dictatorships.

Really? Because King Abdullah in Jordan is really as bad as East Germany’s Erich Honecker? Really? And Egypt is as un-free as Ceauşescu’s Romania?

I don’t buy it. The writer is suggesting that we openly break with the Middle East’s current leadership and support those trying to overthrow them. This totally ignores the relevance and importance of the region’s oil (I know, not PC to admit, but if you lived through 1973, you know it’s naive to simply ignore it) and the security of Israel (again, regardless of your opinion, Israel matters to US foreign policy decision makers). It also ignores the basic fact that a lot of these regimes are our friends, while the gang in the Soviet bloc were our mortal enemies. (It also ignores that we didn’t sell weapons to Eastern Europe, we do the Middle East – and like it or not, the money and influence that goes along with those sales matter). Shouldn’t any of that come into play, at all, when considering the cost-benefits of overthrowing their governments? We had little to lose, in terms of the strategic and economic benefits of a good relationship, when taking on the Soviet satellites. You simply can’t say the same about the Middle East.

I’m not suggesting that we per se subjugate hundreds of millions of people because their despotic leaders kind of sort of like us, and supporting the bad guy is lucrative. I am saying that foreign policy decision making needs to be based on more than just what feels good. While the writer starts the essay by making that point, I think he fails his own test by the end of the piece. Other than the “it’s not nice to support oppressive governments” argument, he doesn’t offer a very compelling rationale for helping to overthrow the Middle East and possibly failing.

I’ll say it again: Overthrowing Saddam and the Taliban, nice idea. How’s that working out for you now?

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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