Sunday, February 13, 2011

Now What?

With the “stepping down” of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the military taking over the reigns of power, no doubt to the great delight of millions of Egyptians, there remains one fundamental question that begs to be answered. Now what?

Yes, now that a popular uprising has brought about an end to one of the most corrupt dictatorships in the Middle East, what are the implications for the rest of the region? And for that matter, the United States? Do not kid yourselves. While many on the Left are calling this a triumph for democracy – and rightly so – the ramifications are still not fully known or understood. For instance, what type of government will eventually emerge out of the vacuum that Mubarak left behind? Which government will be the next to feel the wrath of its people? Saudi Arabia? Jordan? Both? To believe that Egypt will be the last domino to fall would be naïve. Already many experts are conceding that the tide that is currently sweeping through the Middle East may well claim before it subsides virtually every autocracy and monarchy currently standing. And while it might give comfort to many progressives to see the last remnants of American imperialism in the region come to an end, I would urge extreme caution before counting so many chickens from those eggs.

For one thing, Democracy, as we know it, has not done well in the Middle East. With the exception of Israel, there are no cases of a flourishing and successful democratic movement anywhere in the region. While the neo-cons may tout Iraq as an example, the fact remains that without American interference, Iraq would still have been under the auspices of a brutal dictator; and even with an illegal and unwarranted invasion, the country remains to this day in utter chaos. It will take years before a fledgling Democracy will take root there, if ever.

The problem with the Middle East is that is has no reference point by which to measure successful Democracies. While populist uprisings have certainly occurred – see Iran, circa 1979 – most of them end up resembling the proverbial switching of staterooms on the Titanic. In essence what we end up seeing is one form of brutal and oppressive rule replaced by an equally brutal and oppressive rule. The only variable is the relationship the U.S. ends up having with the new rulers.

And that, of course, is the random element that is playing out in Egypt at this very moment. The Obama Administration’s handling of this revolution – mishandling is more like it – has caused some Egyptians to, once again, question whether they can count on America being a true supporter of whatever government ends up taking form over the next few months. When you combine our track record in the Middle East with the region’s lack of experience in democratic movements, it’s like stepping up to the plate with two strikes against you. If history is any indicator, we may be in for a rude awakening as the regimes of the Saudi and Jordanian ruling families are rocked and eventually toppled.

Will the U.S. support the existing dictatorships? Will it play a neutral role, which the Administration began doing and then abandoned for some unknown reason? Or will it come out in full support of democracy, thus getting a jumpstart on the inevitable?

Tough questions, to be sure, but how well they are answered may go a long way towards determining whether America will build partnerships with these new governments, or, like Iran, will face the next several decades staring down the wrong end of a loaded gun. At stake are trillions of dollars in oil reserves and the future of Western hegemony and its combined economies.