Opinion

Arab revolt is a tidal wave. Does the West get what's really behind it?

We've blown it so far by thinking in terms of stability, or security. We should have been thinking most about values: our own. The opportunities for progress are far greater with a democratic Middle East. And the implications will dwarf both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.

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One of the great challenges in intelligence analysis is predicting big changes. The safest analysis is nearly always that the forces that have shaped things until now will continue. A continuation of the status quo is thus the most likely outcome – right up to the moment that status quo disappears.

This makes policymakers cautious. Even amid new developments – demonstrations, economic crises, warfare – the expectation is that the ship will right itself and things will revert to normal. It therefore pays to wait, to be cautious, to see who comes out on top, to attempt to safeguard other national security interests. Why leap into a situation to support one side, if there’s a good chance the other side will come out on top?

Change happens

Yet big, unexpected changes do happen. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The collapse of the Soviet Union. And getting on the wrong side of change carries its own substantial costs. Moreover, when change is inevitable, caution can prolong a crisis, while action might bring about a swifter, more peaceful, and more beneficial resolution.

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The trick is to know when a big change is underway, and when it is business as usual. This is where the West has consistently gotten it wrong on the revolutions sweeping the Middle East.

First it was Tunisia, where most observers believed that demonstrations couldn’t topple a dictator. Then it was the supposed uniqueness of Tunisia, where most observers did not really believe that regime-change there could mean regime-change elsewhere.

In Egypt, most observers didn’t believe the protests could really bring down former President Hosni Mubarak. Most observers did not believe that in Libya, with a regime ready to use brute force, change was possible.

Each time, we have gotten the analysis wrong. Each time, we have been slow to speak out, slow to support change, slow to take action. Those who have been willing to risk their lives for their own freedom in the Middle East can be forgiven for believing that the United States and the West have been against them.

Six reasons

Why have we gotten it wrong?

  • First is the belief that the autocratic regimes will prevail in the end – so why burn bridges?
  • Second, especially for Europe, is the fear any change will lead to massive refugee and migration flows.
  • Third is the fear that Islamist extremists will hijack the revolutions and impose a worse regime than the one they replace.
  • Fourth is the concern that new regimes might not honor existing arrangements with Israel.
  • Fifth is that soft bigotry that says that Arabs aren’t ready for democracy.
  • And sixth – perhaps most significantly – is that Western governments simply did not understand that this is a revolution based on human values and transformational ideas.

Authoritarian Arab leaders told us for years that radical Islam was the only alternative to their rule. They used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a smoke-screen to mask their own thuggish regimes. They suppressed public access to information and outlets for alternative Arab voices. As a result, we in the West succumbed to the belief that democratic change was indeed impossible – our own values notwithstanding.

Most government officials don’t read Twitter-feeds. Many of those who do discount them as insignificant popular ramblings when compared with official government positions and actions.

Yet all it takes is to read the tweets coming out of key participants and observers in the Middle East to understand that what is happening now is different. The people are blasting away the myths put forward for years by these authoritarian leaders.

Not about Islam, Israel, or the West

This tidal wave is not about Islam, nor Israel, nor the West. It is an internally driven demand for rights and freedoms from a new generation of Arabs who see the way their societies have been stolen by their own rulers. The institutions of democracy may have been denied for decades, but the human spirit’s demand for freedom remains universal and unchanged. This is what our prudent intelligence analysis and policy constructs fail to understand.

The demand for change in the region won’t simply go away. And because it is aligned with our own most deep-rooted values, the West should have gotten behind it from the beginning.

As hard as it is to predict these things, we need to see now that this isn’t business as usual – this is the big change. The fears we have over stability, regional security, and Islamic extremism are more likely to be realized if we resist these changes, than if we support them. And the opportunities for genuine progress on these same issues – stability, regional peace, global security, anti-extremism – are far greater with a democratic Middle East. The implications will dwarf both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.

Kurt Volker is a former US ambassador to NATO. He is now senior fellow and managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a senior adviser at McLarty Associates.

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