I have been spending the past two weeks in Israel and, although it’s not the primary (or even the secondary) purpose of my visit, the subject of the revolutions sweeping the Arab world inevitably comes up. Some Israelis I have spoken to have been hopeful about what is happening; most have not been. Their view is that they have learned to live with despotic regimes and now they fear the consequences of their overthrow. That’s an understandable impulse for a small nation in a rough neighborhood, but it can be carried too far; I had one professor tell me, for instance, that it would be have been much better to have left Saddam Hussein in power because he was a “stabilizing” influence on the region. This would be the same Saddam who invaded Kuwait and Iran, who massacred the Kurds and Shiites, who tried to get weapons of mass destruction — and who, lest anyone forget, fired missiles at Israel. I’m sorry, but whatever your view of whether the U.S. should have invaded Iraq, it’s bizarre to lament Saddam’s demise.
More broadly, I find it a little bit odd that Israelis lament the passing of the ancien régimes in such a dysfunctional region. Yes, it’s possible that succeeding regimes could be worse, but the previous ones were bad enough. Hosni Mubarak may have maintained diplomatic relations with Israel, but he did nothing to create amity between the Israeli and Egyptian people; instead, he allowed Egypt’s state-run media, mosques, and schools to spew nonstop anti-Semitic bile. Moreover, the very dysfunctionality of his regime fostered resentment that made Egypt a breeding ground for Islamist fundamentalism. And Mubarak’s Egypt was a sterling showcase of liberty compared with Libya, whose megalomaniacal ruler spent decades supporting terrorism and spreading his malign influence throughout Africa and the Middle East. No sane person should lament the inevitable end of the Qaddafi regime. We can only hope that a similar fate is suffered by dictators in Damascus and Tehran.
Again, it’s always possible that what will come next will be worse, but the signs so far have been pretty positive. Numerous Egyptians may have turned out to hear the Islamist firebrand Yusuf Qaradawi preach in Tahrir Square, but the demonstrators who brought down Mubarak were not chanting pro-Islamist or anti-Western slogans. Instead, they were talking the language of civil rights and representative government. As Pete noted, even Daniel Pipes, who can hardly be accused of viewing the Arab world through a rose-colored lens, writes that he is optimistic about the results of these convulsions — an optimism shared by few Israelis.
What I find most odd in my conversations with Israelis is the suggestion that somehow the U.S. engineered everything that is happening. This is a common misconception about American omnipotence; wherever I have gone in the world, I have heard the U.S. — and especially the often hapless CIA — blamed for whatever local political developments my interlocutor objected to. But it is especially startling to hear such talk from sophisticated Israelis who have spent considerable time in the U.S. One such Israeli — a professor of great learning and wisdom — actually asked me if the U.S. was backing the Arab revolts in the hopes that they would spread to China. Now there’s a thought that I bet has never entered the head of any policymaker in Washington.
Israelis demand to know why Washington is allowing its allies to fall. Similar questions are being asked in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other pro-American dictatorships. The answer is that — believe it or not — events are largely outside our control. U.S. policymakers are far from driving these convulsions; they are often far behind the curve. It is doubtful that the U.S. could have made much of a difference to the outcome in Tunisia or Egypt, and it is almost inconceivable that the U.S. would have given carte blanche to Mubarak or other dictators to fire on their own people as Qaddafi is now doing.
I am by no means suggesting that the U.S. is an impotent giant; in Libya, we have an opportunity to affect the course of events by intervening to administer the coup de grace to Qaddafi’s discredited dictatorship. But it is the height of unrealism to imagine (as Israelis and Saudis seem to) that the U.S. today could or should play the role of Habsburg Austria and Romanoff Russia in repressing the revolutions of 1848. Our best bet, as I have argued before, is to support the revolutions and work hard to ensure that secular democrats come out on top. Indeed, given our historical DNA, that’s our only real option.