Some Lessons of the Arab Revolts

Posted February 26th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

In my latest Internationalist column for The Boston Globe, I explore some of the implications of the Arab revolutions for US policy. It will take a long time for American policy makers to grasp the implications of the popular wave sweeping the Arab world, and if history is any guide, the architects of American policy might never actually figure out what happened, why, and how best to respond. One of my favorite analysts and bloggers, Issandr El Amrani at The Arabist, thinks the arguments I make are at best banal, at worst, completely wrong-headed.

Here’s how the column opens:

The popular revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and beyond have seized the world imagination like no events since the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Regimes are teetering, dictators have fallen, and unexpected coalitions have managed to conjure street-level power seemingly out of thin air. Tunisians took credit for Egypt’s revolution; Egyptian demonstrators in turn claim they inspired people in Wisconsin and Bahrain.

Much remains uncertain, and even the most experienced observers have no idea who will hold power in the aftermath of these uprisings. But already we’ve learned more in a few short months than we gleaned from decades of careful study about the real power base of Moammar Khadafy and Hosni Mubarak, about the balance among armies and tribes, about the relative power of secular and Islamist activists. We’re seeing the true measure of oil money and the Muslim Brotherhood, of popular anger about corruption, and of the real interest in economic liberalization.

But perhaps the most surprising lessons emerging from all the unrest are even bigger ones — insights that extend well beyond the Middle East, and are forcing thinkers and policy makers to reconsider some basic assumptions that have long guided America’s foreign policy. How much impact can America really have on world events? How do our alliances function at crucial moments? Who really has the potential to initiate and control massive change in modern societies? The surprising answers suggested by the Arab revolts might create new options in the minds of American policy makers looking to advance not only US security and economic goals, but also the causes of human rights, transparency, and democratic governance.

Read the rest here.

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