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The Analogy Between 1989 and 2011: The First Bush and Obama

The Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum has a wonderfully insightful op-ed in today’s paper in which she rightly points out that the proper analogy to the series of revolts breaking out across the Arab world is in the events of 1848, not 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a historic moment in which tyrannies fell, but today’s events have much more of the feel of the great revolts that ended Europe’s age of reaction 163 years ago. Moreover, as Applebaum notes, the outcome of the 1989 demonstrations that led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire was very different from the probable outcomes of the various struggles in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya, with perhaps other countries to follow.

The truth about 1848 is that Europe’s year of revolution ended unhappily for the advocates of democracy. Hapsburg Austria and Tsarist Russia joined forces to brutally crush Hungary’s independence movement. Revolutions against monarchies around the Continent met with defeat everywhere. Another royal dictator, by the name of Napoleon III, soon replaced even France’s Second Republic.

But, as Applebaum correctly asserts, the defeats of 1848 were not permanent. The ferment that characterized the year of revolt would eventually bear fruit in a Europe that would ultimately reject the status quo of authoritarian monarchism. It is in this sense that we can hope that the current wave of revolution in the Middle East will be a good thing in the long run. As Applebaum writes:

It is equally true that by 2012, some or even all of these revolutions might be seen to have failed. Dictatorships might be reimposed, democracy won’t work, ethnic conflict will turn into ethnic violence. As in 1848, a change of political system might take a very long time, and it might not come about through popular revolution at all. Negotiation, as I wrote a few weeks ago, is generally a better and safer way to hand over power. Some of the region’s dictators might eventually figure that out.

But if there is any proper analogy with 1989, it is between the reactions of the United States government to events in Europe 22 years ago and those of the present day. In 1989, the George H.W. Bush administration hardly knew what to say about the breakup of the “evil empire.” Rather than lead and speak out in favor of liberty, the first President Bush and his minions seemed at first at a loss and then actively opposed freedom for captive states.

Today we have another administration that is uncomfortable with democracy promotion and has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into support for change in the Arab world. Their attitude is not so much one of “realism” as it is rooted in a lack of faith in the value of American leadership and disgust for the democracy agenda of its predecessor. Unlike in 1989, when there was no doubt (except in the hearts of Bush and his foreign-policy team) about what side America should be on, the situation in the Islamic world is a complicated one, with bad guys to be found on both sides of the barricades. But America’s ability to influence events for good has been critically hampered by Obama’s reluctance to proclaim America’s principles.

As in 1989, America has been behind the curve at every point during the current struggle and unable or unwilling to use its influence one way or another. While Eastern Europe made its way to freedom in spite of George H.W. Bush, we can only wonder what effect the feckless and timid instincts of Barack Obama’s administration will have on the ultimate outcome of the current perilous process.



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