Uprisings and western perspectives

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in the Oval Office, Jan. 28, 2011. Vice President Joe Biden listens at left, and the President’s National Security team confer in the background. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)  Two complexes afflict western, especially American and French, policy in the Middle East and the Muslim countries generally: 1) the Tehran ’79 Syndrome; and 2) the Algiers ’92 Syndrome. In both cases Islamist factions effectively co-opted popular unrest in the first case turning a generalized revolt against a particular pro-western dictator into an “Islamic Revolution” that torpedoed a presidential re-election campaign and tanked a major American ally and in the second a predominantly Muslim polity held free elections in which an Islamist party won the overwhelming majority of votes and then devolved into a decade long Civil War. In the first case, the lesson was to stand by allies in times of crisis for strategic as well as domestic political reasons. No American president, especially no Democratic president, wants to end a first term like Jimmy Carter did. In the second, the lesson as that democratic processes in Muslim polities, especially in Arab ones, lead to Islamist victories which drastically increases the risk factor associated with political reform or popular protest. The emergency laws so popular in many Arab states (and which usually ban demonstrations or significantly the activities of political parties) therefore seem easily justifiable from the standpoint of western interests. In both cases, the country put at risk was a major oil or gas producer. Both countries were strategically positioned in terms of either Eurasian or European geopolitics, though one less than the other (Iran in relation to the Persian Gulf and the Soviet Union; Algeria in terms of southern Europe, particularly in terms of immigration and Mediterranean shipping and energy). The Iranian problem cast its shadow over the Algerian one; and the Algerian experience has loomed over other Arab-Muslim experiments with democracy in America, Europe and the Arab countries. Iran looms more heavily in the American psyche — with the hostage crisis the Iranian revolution was an enormous humiliation and geopolitical shake up. The Algerian crisis was more serious in the French mind, but has been prominent in American analysis and thinking about Islamists and elections. It is key to notice that most American writing on Algeria is preoccupied with two phases of the country’s history and one dimension of its politics after 1980: the War of Independence, the 1990/1992 elections and coup and the role of Islamists until about 1999 when material dries up and becomes more narrowly specialized. This abridged and (over)simplified for brevity’s sake but the basic point is here (and this is meant to describe of all official or academic view points on the region).

The overall lesson was to back incumbents to avoid an Islamist take over facilitated by revolt or elections. One can discern the trauma of these events in the way many (though not all) American and western policy makers talk, write and act when faced with the fact that their allies in the region are overwhelmingly unpopular and provocatively repressive. France’s response to the Tunisian uprising (and indeed the whole dialect in which Chirac and Sarkozy discussed their support for Ben Ali: the talk about how France “doesn’t want a Taliban regime” in Tunisia for example; an allusion to Algeria, not Afghanistan), for example, reflects this most clearly. The dominant official American attitude toward democratic reform in Egypt is concerned with the possibility that the Muslim Brothers might sweep the polls and cut off the treaty with Israel and debase the American relationship with what is considered a pivotal ally. Reams and reams of paper have been used debating, discussing, contemplating, marinating on the character and ambitious and fanaticism and enlightenment of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. Democracy is tolerable so long as there is no Islamist problem. And in some sense this is a reasonable concern for a country like the United States which, for now, has a relatively narrow interest in Arab politics in both the Gulf and the Levant (oil, shipping and Israel). Yet this tendency frequently imprisons both official and independent thinking and analysis, ignoring other political tendencies and the structural and cultural forces that have far more impact popular unrest and regime instability than Islamism (in public discourse this is sometimes deliberate; and of course there are legitimate concerns along this line related to American national interests). And this can produce poor analysis of events which is fed to officials whose motivations are driven by all the other things that drive elected and appointed men in America and the result is frequently unsatisfactory from a medium-term perspective. In 1980s and 1990s these attitudes made more sense when autocratic allies were younger and the masses of young people now with so much power in the streets were infants. But the political choice for Arabs is no longer (and probably never was) between dictators and fanatics. Political alternatives are scarce but not because of civilizational or religious impediments but because the maintenance of pro-western bulwarks against “Islamists” have deliberately choked them out and excluded large swaths of their populations from political and economic activity. The kinds of uprisings seen this winter will bleed into the spring so long as long as things remain the same. The process and character of these uprisings deserve careful attention and reflection; there is a potential that these will have an enormously powerful impact on Arab politics far beyond the current regimes or political movements.


5 thoughts on “Uprisings and western perspectives

  1. I disagree. For example, I’ll offer the fact that the US dropped Marcos in the Philippines, even though he’d been a staunch ally and even though it cost the US the largest naval installation in the world, which served as the lynchpin of our pacific strategy. As far as I know, that (Aquino’s revolution) was the first of the people-power revolutions.

    Perhaps that particular sentence should have specified further that the area of discussion is predominantly Arab/Muslim allied countries (the emphasis being on Arab).

    Jimmy Carter’s disgrace was not the loss of the Shah. It was the hostage crisis, and his abject cowardice in dealing with it. The American public was largely oblivious to Iran and its importance. And that didn’t change until we started seeing American diplomats being paraded around tied and blindfolded on our TV screens. Who knows what would have happened, either in Iran or in the US, if Carter hadn’t been such a fool?

    Said as much in the first paragraph re: the hostage crisis, but the issue here is not so much with the average American as with the official American.

    JWell… yeah… so what’s the point? Bush is the only American (and probably the only western) leader who has thought pushing for democracy in Muslim countries was a good idea. And he went down in disgrace. What lesson you figure was learned from that?

    Bush *kind* of thought that and *kind* attempted to push democracy in the Arab countries. That’s not mentioned because it did not significantly change official dispositions on democracy in the Arab countries; it drew the same lessons as 1992 where Islamism is concerned and was generally a bad idea as applied (and thought out). Note that the object of this post is not to advocate for democracy promotion but look at attitudes that hinder analysis of problems as they relate to national and strategic interests.

  2. OK… but if the lesson the US/West learned was that we should stand by our allies no matter what, what Arab/Muslim country did you have in mind that illustrated that? As far as a I know the first credible anti-government revolutionary movement in a pr0-western Arab/Muslim country since 1979 was Tunisia a few weeks back. Am I wrong about that?

    The entire point of the post is that Iran taught that lesson and Algeria (and Egypt in the late 80s/early 90s) re-enforced it and that those experiences have created serious problems as official perspectives relate to other circumstances that are significantly different and those lessons don’t totally apply.

    You don’t get to use an American President losing an election as an example and then say you weren’t talking about US public opinion

    If you’re talking about the behavior and view point of officials in relation to public opinion, you do. If a president is afraid of not being re-elected his advisors (and other unelected types) will adjust themselves for that context which is why the electoral element is relevant. Other than that the post is explicit in that it is concerned with elite perspectives.

    I disagree! That was the very heart of the neocon strategy for winning the war on terror! It’s why they decided to invade Iraq, even though Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. I don’t think it’s possible to over-sate the degree to which the neocons were relying on democratic reforms to de-radicalize Muslims. Even the left was ridiculing them for being naive. And here all they get is an acknowledgment they “kind of” supported democracy

    The fact that neocons called for elections and then backed away from them when (and even before) they produced results they didn’t like (vis-a-vis Israel in particular) I think shows you how much the Bush policy was interested in democracy. Note also that that policy was highly selective. And neoconservatives did not control the whole policy making process and were done away with (mostly) after 2005ish. The Bush administration and others did learn but the question is whether they took the right lessons. Egypt, the PA, Jordan, etc have domestic contexts that don’t translate to other Arab polities and so the comparisons and less about them are not so readily useful as they are often treated.

    Well, speaking strictly as a private citizen of the US the biggest problem I’ve had with my own analysis when it comes to Arab/Muslim countries is that people in those countries hate us. And I’m not sure how we can improve our national and strategic interests in countries where the populations hate us. Hatred is a tough nut to crack.

    Especially when we have a policy that contributes to it. And that might be

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