On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian, doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire to protest policies of the Tunisian government. That desperate act of defiance has been the spark that ignited a powder keg of revolutions in the Middle East. From Tunisia, protest spread to Egypt where the 3o-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarek was peacefully toppled. From Egypt, protests have spread to Bahrain and Lebanon. Iran's Green Revolution has been rekindled. Now, as civil war rages in Libya and the Arab League has called for Colonel Qadhafi to step down, the United States is left to wonder what to make of this and what role should it play.
The first question is what is the ultimate goal of these revolutionaries? Are they interested in individual liberty and economic freedom? Or, are these revolutions fueled by reactionary Islamist or jihadist elements bent on establishing theocracies in place of the secular autocracies? In short, are these revolutions more similar to the one in Tehran in 1979 or to the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989? Several features suggest the latter. First the protests, particularly in Egypt, have not been coupled with overt anti-American or anti-Western rhetoric (the burning of American flags, etc.). In fact, many on the street interviewed by western journalists have talked about how they would like to have the type of democracy enjoyed in the U.S. Secondly, the root causes of these protests have been economic. Third, in the case of Iran, it hardly seems likely that protest against an Islamic theocracy is aimed at establishing an Islamic theocracy. Although some have worried about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, it should be recognized that Egypt is not a resource rich nation (i.e. not an oil producing nation) that can economically afford difficult political relations with the West. On the contrary, Egypt's largest industry is tourism and one would hope that the economic interest of Egyptians would favour stability and continued cordial relations with the West. In Libya, Colonel Qadhafi has tried to persuade his people that Al Qaeda is behind the insurgency in an effort to discredit the insurgency and dissuade Libyans from joining it. If Qadhafi thinks that associating the insurgency with Al Qaeda discredits it in the eyes of the Libyan people, then it is unlikely the Libyan people are interested in jihad.
However, the good intentions of the protesters is no guarantee of a positive outcome. History is full of examples of failed democratic revolutions in which the best of intentions produce horrendous results or the ensuing chaos and power vacuum degenerates into tyranny. The French First Republic and the Wiemar Republic provide European examples. Hugo Chavez became an autocrat by democratic means, as did Vladmir Putin. There is no guarantee that democratic revolutions will remain democratic. Many factors, discussed in two previous posts (http://freemarkets-freeminds-freesociety.blogspot.com/2008/04/orange-revolution.html and http://freemarkets-freeminds-freesociety.blogspot.com/2009/06/iran.html) are important for successful liberal democracy, including limits on government power; a concept of rule of law; private property rights; dispersal of power amongst national and local governments, public and private institutions, and between different branches of government; and independent civil and governing institutions. Simply voting and having majority rule guarantees none of these things and can be a recipe for mob rule. Capital and private property rights are important in the development of liberty. The production of wealth (and therefore a tax base for government) requires private ownership, which requires personal property rights, which then requires codification of the protection of those rights. Commerce requires freedom to travel, free speech to advertise, and therefore the codification of these freedoms. Based on this relationship between capitalism and freedom, Fareed Zakaria has observed in his wonderful book, The Future of Freedom, that successful liberal democracies tend to take hold in countries with a per capita GDP of $6,000 USD. Based on this analysis, Egypt, Libya, and Iran would not seem like fertile ground for successful democracies (in fact, Zakaria points out that resource-rich states like Iran have greater impediment because no government in Iran would be beholden to free and productive citizenry to create wealth). In the midst of all this uncertainty, surely a militant jihadist group could play on the fears of the people and their desire for stability and hijack a revolution that may have started as a democratic one.
This uncertainty is a quandary for the United States. There is great fear that these revolutions may lead to instability and the rise of more terrorist states in an already volatile region (and a region that the world depends on for oil). Furthermore, with Libya and Iran as exceptions, often the protesters are revolting against governments allied with the U.S. (such as Mubarek in Egypt and the monarchy in Bahrain). Should the United States be supporting its allies even if they do not have the support of their own people. Should we intervene to help topple dictators like Qadhafi and Ahmadinejad? Would U.S. support for insurgents undermine their legitimacy? Would U.S. involvement allow jihadists to paint these movements as American backed frauds and ride anti-western sentiment into power? Would our involvement, militarily, foment the very radicalization of these movements that we hope to avoid?
If we truly believe that it is a self-evident truth that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, then we must not continue to prop up dictators in a region where our history of doing so in the past in the name of, "stability," has damaged our reputation and created the type of anger that contributes to the recruitment of terrorists. We may fear possible outcomes of these revolutions, but we have no choice but to let them play out and let the brave people of these nations chart their own destinies. They may not choose the same style of governance as ours, but we must acknowledge that the choice is theirs and not ours.
Whether or not to intervene in Libya is a more difficult question. Rebel forces seem locked in a stalemate with Colonel Qadhafi's forces and many Libyans will die before this is over. It is tempting to consider establishing a no-fly zone and perhaps even sending in ground troops to help the Libyan people get rid of an evil dictator. After all, where would the U.S. be today without the intervention of France in our revolution? However, U.S. troops in Libya, or U.S. planes over Libya would involve the U.S. in yet another middle eastern quagmire and serve as yet another example of foreign conquest to our detractors in the region. The key difference between the American Revolution and the Libyan one is the Continental Congress sent Benjamin Franklin to Paris to ask the King of France for help. While we should stand ready to provide any assistance the Libyan people ask us for (preferably in the context of a multinational effort), we must continue to understand that the fate of Libya is for Libyans to decide.
Ultimately these movements are not about the United States or our interests. We should stop talking about these revolutions as if it is up to the U.S. to decide how to manage their outcomes. It was the Athenian penchant for toppling tyrants in favour of democracies that stirred the ire of Sparta. Democratic movements and regime change have legitimacy when the arise from within, not when they are imposed from without.