“No one saw it coming!” This is the phrase that I heard most often from officials and analysts during a visit to Washington and New York last week.
What we are told “no one saw coming” is, of course, the series revolts that has shaken the “Arab World” for the past six months.
That Western officials and analysts didn’t see it coming is no surprise. They also didn’t see it coming when the Soviet Empire collapsed like a pack of cards. What is of concern today is that the Western powers plus Japan, that is to say nations that account for some 60 per cent of the global economy, seem to have no idea of how to respond to changes in the Middle East let alone help shape the new geostrategic architecture of the region.
Under President Barack Obama, the United States is applying the reverse gear, a policy encouraged by neo-isolationists in the opposition Republican Party.
“We are going to focus on nation-building at home,” Mr. Obama says, hoping to use war-weariness as a key theme of his re-election campaign.
The trouble is that the US and Europe cannot remain mere spectators of the sea change in the Middle East.
True, their dependence on the region’s oil is no longer as acute as in the last century. And the end of the Cold War has robbed the Middle East of its geostrategic value. As for fear of “terror-exporting Iran,” that bogeyman is not as scary as a decade ago. Isolated and divided, the mullahs are at each other’s throats while their nuclear program, stung by “computer worms,” is going nowhere fast.
That leaves Al Qaeda, the Arab twin of Khomeinist terror. However, having suffered heavy losses at all levels, and, more importantly, exposed by the Arab revolt as a dangerous irrelevancy, Al Qaeda, too, is no longer capable of keeping Western attention focused on the Middle East.
For six or seven decades, fear of the Soviet Union, the Khomeinist regime and Al Qaeda was one reason for Western attention to the region.
That fear is now either vanished or largely dissipated. The Soviet threat is forgotten while Khomeinism is on a slippery slope that could lead to its ultimate demise. As for Al Qaeda, it is clear that it has no chance of winning power anywhere in the “Arab world.”
To be sure, some are trying to find new fears designed to keep Western attention focused on the Middle East. Ultra-right groups foment fear of “mass immigration” and “human trafficking” from North Africa while the ultra-left warns of “endless war” in southern and eastern Mediterranean.
However, it is unlikely that these new fears, based on Schopenhauerian pessimism, would be strong enough to provide the axis for a new strategy.
But what could one suggest as a substitute for fear?
If we follow Tabari the father of Islamic historians, greed could be a good substitute. But if we ask Christian mythology, the best substitute would be hope.
However, neither greed nor hope could do the job.
So, what about “enlightened self-interest”?
I remember the debate over what to do about post-Soviet eastern and central Europe. US President George H. W. Bush, the father, and French President Francois Mitterrand saw the newly liberated countries as a potential burden at a time that the US and Europe were experiencing another of their episodic recessions. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, however, saw the whole thing as an opportunity both for German re-unification and for freeing Eastern and Central Europe from Communism.
Thanks to Mr. Kohl’s persistence, Europe opened a fast track to pluralism, the rule of law and economic modernization for the newly-liberated nations. Isn’t it remarkable that within a quarter of a century all but four European nations of the former Soviet Empire are members of the European Union? (The four are Belorussia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine.)
The European Union adopted a similarly pro-active attitude towards the former Yugoslavia whose breakup came after the bloodiest wars that Europe had seen in 60 years. Two of the six republics of the Yugoslav federation have already been admitted as EU members while another two are in fast-track talks to join.
To be sure we are not suggesting that the EU admit Middle Eastern countries as members. For a set of reasons beyond the scope of this column, that is not in the cards anytime soon, as Turkey’s case has shown.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague claims that because none of the Middle Eastern nations has “a collective democratic memory” what happened in central and Eastern Europe cannot happen there.
Mr. Hague does not say how one could develop a “memory” of something before experiencing it.
In any case, what does this “collective democratic memory” mean?
When did Hungary or Romania, to cite just two examples, acquire such a memory when, for decades, they were ruled by Fascists then by Communists. Turkey has had a parliamentary system, albeit far from perfect, since the 1920s and Iran had its first parliament in 1906. Before the military seized power in the 1950s, Egypt and Iraq had developed a “collective democratic memory” for three decades.
Translated into plain English, Mr. Hague’s phrase could mean only one thing: the Arabs are not ready for freedom and prosperity! Translated further, that phrase could mean: the Arabs don’t deserve freedom and prosperity!
And that is what every despot has claimed since Hajjaj ibn Yussef.
In 2001, having breakfast with Mr. Kohl in Paris, I asked the former chancellor why he had decided to help fast track the formerly Communist European countries to partnership with the EU?
“Because I thought they wanted the same things as we do,” he said. “They want freedom, security and prosperity, things that all human beings want, things that we could better achieve together.”
Mr. Kohl made no mention of “collective democratic memory.”
Kohl’s formula applies to Arabs, as well as Turks and Iranians, as much as it did to eastern and central Europeans. The Western democracies should assume that the peoples of the Middle East want what every human being wants.
Amir Taheri is a commentator on international affairs. This article first appeared in the London-based Asharq Al Awsat on July 1, 2011