It was appropriate for Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, to announce, “At a time when the Arab peoples affirm their quest for democracy — the Arab Spring — the time is now for the Palestinian Spring, the time for independence.”
Quite. Assimilating the events of the winter in several Arab countries to the Palestinian movement’s latest gambit — getting the UN to recognize their statehood without the counterpart that they recognize the state of Israel — makes sense. The very essence of the Palestinian national movement is to substitute itself for the Palestinian people; in this sense, Mahmoud Abbas is simply following the M.O. of his predecessor, Yassir Arafat, without the slightest regard or respect for what the Palestinian people desire. (The latest example: surveys show that the Palestinian Arab residents of Jerusalem in their crushing majority prefer to stay under the authority of the state of Israel than to be transferred to that of the proposed Palestinian state.)
There was a larger and more troubling sense, too, in which this was an appropriate (and shrewd) political move. If the Arab spring means anything, in the minds of Western, and notably American, observers, it is that democratic aspirations are on the rise in the Arab-Islamic world and we, of course, must support these. Mahmoud Abbas caught us at our own word. Journalists, analysts, and statesmen are together in explaining to us, since last December when ordinary people in Tunisia said enough of this hogra (tyrannical humiliation by cliquish regimes), that democracy is the answer to the long Arab despair. If this leads to problems, for example the coming to power through election of totalitarian movements, well then give them, as John Dewey said, more democracy.
However, it is not what happened, at least so far. In Tunisia and Egypt, the two places where the spring seems to have made its way into some kind of summer, democracy has meant replacing one clique with another, while full blown democracy may well produce regimes run by men whose thinking resembles that of the leaders of the Palestinian Hamas or the Lebanese Hezbollah. Other countries — Yemen, Syria, Libya, Bahrain — are in the midst of civil war, in which regional and tribal and sectarian allegiances are at least as important motivating forces as democratic aspirations. In still others — Morocco and, astonishingly enough, Saudi Arabia — the rulers are trying to anticipate trouble by proposing various enlargements of civil and political rights, notably as they concern women.
In calling upon our president to ditch old allies like Hosni Mubarak and Zine Ben Ali and support democracy, our neo-Wilsonians have been playing with fire. Whatever else their advice does, it will not promote democracy as we understand it and enhance American prestige and power in the region.
In the eyes of the Arabs, the “foreigner’s gift,” as Fouad Ajami put it three years ago, was to show them that the tyrants were not permanent maledictions in these unhappy lands. But the gift was spoiled. We failed to follow through. We let the Lebanese liberals — liberals in the simple classic sense of people aspiring to liberty — see their leader assassinated and their country revert to the tyranny of terrorist gangs and the Syrian oppressor we were supposed to have helped them slough off.
This was happening, mind, while we seemed incapable of policing an Iraq we supposedly had liberated from tyranny. We were being rolled by cunning factional leaders intent on using our money and military resources to destroy or neutralize their rivals. The pattern repeated itself in Afghanistan. In our incorrigible optimism, we called this a surge against terrorism, when it was a temporary return to comparative order in some parts of the countries in question, worth only as much as the ransom we paid for it and good only so long as our price and our protective services did not meet their betters.
Gaddafi, the zaim of Libya, placated us with a gesture of disarmament that may well have emboldened the tribes that rose up against him this year, but we scarcely anticipated this or encouraged it. Which is why we had no handle on the rebellion when it began and have no concept of how to control its evolution — perhaps one should say, if control sounds too harsh, how to encourage an evolution toward a liberal regime.
But this, it seems, has been the problem all along. The Wilsonians — why, after all, should they be called “neo-Wilsonians” when they show all the characteristics of the original article? — have made a fetish of democracy, for the very good reason that in Washington, democracy is a good and lucrative racket for midgets in and around the foreign policy bureaucracy who cannot point to a single democratic success story since the founding of the state of Israel, which President Harry Truman backed against the whole panoply of the very kinds of people who have been bleeding the American taxpayer on a luxury mission for democracy in the world in which, interestingly, they are the sole beneficiaries.
Promoting democracy, officially and by way of the adjuncts to officialdom which are the Washington think-tankocracy and the lesson-givers in the media, has aided and abetted the enemies of democracy. Our democracists forget that without liberty democracy is just another word for plebiscitary tyranny, whether it is the tyranny of the mob or the terror gangs or the Palestinian Authority or what have you.
Liberty, however, does not cut it with the bureaucratic mind. How are you going to turn it into a budget item? You can have democracy-promotion organizations and claim to need money for showing the hoi polloi how to run free and fair elections and have a free press, and none of it gets anywhere because the elections will be either rigged or annulled, anyway, and the free press will belong to whoever has the connections necessary to get paper, printing equipment, or their latest gizmo substitutes, which means connections to the same people who have been quietly taking the place of the Tunisian protesters or the Egyptian Minutemen who whoever we thought would win out.
Note, in this connection, that it was all along a symptom of how little we understood about what was going on that we really thought the Tunisian “people” or the Egyptian “people” were rising up against the tyrants. Some Tunisians and Egyptians did, as did some Iranians. As did, at that, some American colonists. Most people in these upheaval situations lie low, and well they might. They understand instinctively that the fight is between various types of ambitious crazies on one side, calling themselves whatever you want, socialists, democrats, islamists, constitutionalists, sectional and tribal forces on the other, and, behind the scenes, members of the commercial, military, or religious elites that one way or another, and sometimes after a certain amount of bloodletting, are going to — re-arrange the chairs.
The reason the upheaval worked in our blessed country is that the freedom-loving crazies were wise and strong enough to convince some of the other parties that their plan for what-happens-after was the best in terms of keeping all the various interests more or less square. Are we seriously going to believe there are any Hamiltons or Jeffersons or Franklins, let alone a Washington, among the desperate and cunning leaders of the Libyan National Transition Council? Or in the committees or commissions that are presumably keeping the lids on, for now, in Egypt and Tunisia? Significantly, few of our Wilsonians seem to be paying the slightest attention to this minor question.
However, if Mahmoud Abbas effectively appropriates the notion that it is springtime in Palestine, the Wilsonians will have only themselves to blame when the whole world begins to echo the line that is sure to follow, which is that only the U.S. and its free and democratic ally, Israel, are responsible for the return of winter.
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