Over the last several weeks (January 2011), we in America have been watching people in the Arab world rise against their dictators. The government of Tunisia has already fallen, and now, Egyptians are demanding that Hosni Mubarak leave power. This wave of revolution raises a couple of points that we need to consider.
The first is that America needs to give up its hypocracy. We’ve been supporting one wretched regime after another in the Middle East, arguing that a dictator is better than a theocracy that the people would choose. The prime example is Iran. Of course, that falls apart when we recall that we bear a lot of responsibility for the Iranian Revolution, since we kept the Shah in power for decades, having used the CIA to overthrow the democratically elected leader in 1953. (He committed the sin of leaning to the left during the Cold War.)
If we believe in democracy, we have to support democratic movements. Yes, we are worried about the so-called Islamists, but suppressing such groups only increases the heat in the pressure cooker, and ultimately, we can’t tell foreign peoples how to feel. Propping up strongmen who will do what we want is shortsighted. In the long view, democracies are better partners in the world, even when they don’t agree with us or comply with our wishes. Take France as the illustration of this. French foreign policy seems to be centered on opposition to American interests, but we haven’t gone to war with France and have no cause to do so. We do business with the French. We drink their wines and visit their museums, and while we have occasion to call them surrendermongers, arguing with words tends to be more pleasant than arguing with bombs.
Author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls this the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Resolution. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, he observed that no two nations that have McDonalds restaurants have gone to war with each other. (Recently, there have been shortlived conflicts that challenged this, but the principle still holds.) Democracies enjoy spending money on luxury goods, and war is expensive.
Democracies also do a better job of providing good lives for citizens. They aren’t perfect at this, but as Churchill said, they are better than any other form of society that has been tried. Poverty and oppression are the primary causes of unrest around the world, and while the transition to democractic governments is often messy, the societies that result will be filled with people who write angry letters to their representatives, rather than blowing themselves up in crowded markets.
The second point here is that each nation has to decide for itself when it’s ready for democracy. The creation of free societies is a fundamental duty of human beings, but that cannot be imposed from without. It can be held back for a while, and it can be encouraged, but only the people themselves can earn this excellent form of government. Look at what happened in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War. The people there arose, and their “leaders” could do nothing to stop them.
As the title of this article suggests, the apex of the pyramid can only remain when the base supports it. Dictators use fear to maintain power, but as Egyptians are now demonstrating, fearful power is an illusion. A few may die if Mubarak is stupid enough to order killings, although it appears that the army is choosing to stay neutral. What brave people understand, though, is that a free life is the only one worth living.
So to the Egyptian people, I say that it’s about time and hip, hip huzzah! If we in America do our duty, we’ll support you.