While I remain hopeful about the long-term prospects for democracy worldwide, I’m less sanguine about U.S. foreign policy, regardless of the political party in charge. The U.S. government has a track record of repeatedly betting on the wrong horse, allowing the personal rapport between leaders to overwhelm common sense. We also tend to value military spending over human rights rhetoric and resort to heavy-handed economic or military measures when we don’t like a revolution’s outcome.
Cyberutopians have hailed the role of cell phones, the Internet, and social media in the latest round of populist uprisings. Global telecommunications have certainly made it easier for groups of people to organize, but we shouldn’t underestimate the ability of regimes from Havana and Beijing to Tehran and Pyongyang to censor news media, ruthlessly crush domestic protests while rallying their own supporters, and fend off international disapproval.
Focusing on North Africa and the Middle East, I think that Egypt may be the exception rather than the rule. I’m glad that Egyptians ousted Hosni Mubarak with a minimum of violence. He was a client of U.S. military largesse and a sponsor of détente with Israel. But Mubarak was not loved in his country, which has long been an important regional power with an educated middle class (preconditions for Western-style democracy and capitalism).
The lack of influence by religious radicals in Egypt’s uprising shows that most Muslims want security, prosperity, and freedom, just like people of other faiths and ethnicities. On the other hand, we have yet to see whether recent elections will lead to positive change or if Egypt’s military will merely swap one strongman for another.
The so-called First World’s addiction to apparently cheap energy has led to our tacit support of nondemocratic Saudi Arabia over the protestors in Bahrain, the difficult occupation of Iraq, and halfhearted support of reform in Yemen and Syria. Israel is the most Westernized of the nations in the region, but it is still struggling with its borders, settlements, and Palestinian neighbors, many of whom are radicalized.
As for our involvement in Libya’s civil war, I’m no fan of Mr. Khadafy, but I’m not sure that the U.S. and U.N. will be able to oust to oust him just as his forces were advancing on rebels. As usual, President Obama is in a no-win situation — our European allies want to intervene in Libya’s civil war, but Congress and the American people are reluctant to intervene, even for humanitarian reasons.
I understand Obama’s hesitation, but I hope that the U.S. can encourage democratic movements, discourage armed conflict and tribalism/fundamentalism, and continue to work with our allies. In an ideal world, we’d stop providing billions of dollars in weapons to the region, and disputed territories would be disarmed and made U.N. protectorates. Of course, if there were easy answers to the region’s socioeconomic, ethnic/religious, and political problems, someone would have found them by now. What do you think we should do?
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