When the history of the Arab Spring is written, the narrative theme will be this: Fear was mastered.
The world has already witnessed how the Arab people’s spontaneous desire for freedom compelled them to cast out old fears of a dictator’s wrath and demand civic ideals.
But the West is being forced down a similar path, slowly dissolving its fear of the unknown and trying to end its hand-wringing anxiety over what might happen in the collapse of the Arab world’s old order of oligarchs.
By now, many of the West’s fears are well known: Will Islamists gain power? Can Israel survive? Will the oil stop flowing? Might Iran gain influence? Will tribal or religious violence erupt? And most of all, is it too costly to intervene?
These are all valid concerns, worthy of debate. But they can also be paralyzing – unless measured against the immense benefit of bringing freedom, democracy, hope, and respect for life to the Middle East and North Africa.
The West still needs reminders that those values are the universal norm, even for a region long regarded as “medieval” and a source of troubles for the world. Once reminded, though, the West’s fears often begin to dissipate and its diplomacy is governed by a focus on the inevitable advance of good ideas.
First in Tunisia and then in Egypt and Libya, the West faltered before finding its proper role in assisting these democratic revolutions. Now it is Syria that calls out for courage. Despite a virtual blackout of digital communications from there, evidence mounts of widening protests by Syrians and wholesale massacres by a cornered regime in Damascus.
Up to now, the West seemed to worry more about a violent breakdown of Syria – a diverse country that is also a pivotal piece in the Mideast’s jigsaw puzzle of power – than in saving lives or assisting the Syrians’ aspirations.
This week, however, the US and much of Europe were emboldened to act. They asked the United Nations Security Council to condemn the regime’s attacks on its people, even suggesting that such actions amount to crimes against humanity – the first step toward international action, including tougher sanctions. The draft resolution also demands that Syria end its media restrictions and prosecute those who have killed civilians.
“We will be on the right side of history if and when this comes to a vote,” said Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN. And, in a reference to opposition by China and Russia, she added: “If others are unable to, or unwilling to, then that will be their responsibility to bear.”
Ever since Tunisia’s revolution in January, a familiar pattern has emerged as each Arab country has reached a crisis of violence and protest. Fear is slowly mastered by the West and bolder actions are taken.
This struggle is often described as one between idealism and realism, or a clash of interests and values. But it is better framed as yet another dawning of hope over fear. And oh, what good history that has made for centuries.
Now it’s the Arabs’ turn.