The Deterioration of the Middle East – and the Decline of the West?

Thoughts on the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, from Ari Shavit of Ha’aretz:

Processes that have been roiling beneath the surface for about a decade are suddenly bursting out in an intifada of freedom. Modernization, globalization, telecommunications and Islamization have created a critical mass that cannot be stopped. The example of democratic Iraq is awakening others, and Al Jazeera’s subversive broadcasts are fanning the flames. And so the Tunisian bastille fell, the Cairo bastille is falling and other Arab bastilles will fall.

But alongside the deterioration of the old order in the Middle East, Aritz sees an even more ominous decline:

The second process is the acceleration of the decline of the West. For some 60 years the West gave the world imperfect but stable order. It built a kind of post-imperial empire that promised relative quiet and maximum peace. The rise of China, India, Brazil and Russia, like the economic crisis in the United States, has made it clear that the empire is beginning to fade.

And yet, the West has maintained a sort of international hegemony. Just as no replacement has been found for the dollar, none has been found for North Atlantic leadership. But Western countries’ poor handling of the Middle East proves they are no longer leaders. Right before our eyes the superpowers are turning into palaver powers.

There are no excuses for the contradictions. How can it be that Bush’s America understood the problem of repression in the Arab world, but Obama’s America ignored it until last week? How can it be that in May 2009, Hosni Mubarak was an esteemed president whom Barack Obama respected, and in January 2011, Mubarak is a dictator whom even Obama is casting aside? How can it be that in June 2009, Obama didn’t support the masses who came out against the zealot Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while now he stands by the masses who are coming out against the moderate Mubarak?

The declining influence of the West represents the victory of the Jimmy Carter school of international affairs – “kowtowing to benighted, strong tyrants while abandoning moderate, weak ones.”

Carter’s betrayal of the Shah brought us the ayatollahs, and will soon bring us ayatollahs with nuclear arms. The consequences of the West’s betrayal of Mubarak will be no less severe. It’s not only a betrayal of a leader who was loyal to the West, served stability and encouraged moderation. It’s a betrayal of every ally of the West in the Middle East and the developing world. The message is sharp and clear: The West’s word is no word at all; an alliance with the West is not an alliance. The West has lost it. The West has stopped being a leading and stabilizing force around the world.

The Arab liberation revolution will fundamentally change the Middle East. The acceleration of the West’s decline will change the world. One outcome will be a surge toward China, Russia and regional powers like Brazil, Turkey and Iran. Another will be a series of international flare-ups stemming from the West’s lost deterrence. But the overall outcome will be the collapse of North Atlantic political hegemony not in decades, but in years. When the United States and Europe bury Mubarak now, they are also burying the powers they once were. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the age of Western hegemony is fading away.

I’m not necessarily endorsing this interpretation of events.  But like many others, I’m trying to make sense of these events as they unfold, and looking for thoughtful, informed viewpoints.

It’s easy for commentators to pretend that they possess perfect clarity on the correct course that the Obama administration should take.  Outside the White House, when the responsibility does not really rest in your hands, when you’re not in full possession of all the details, and when your ears are not filled (as any President’s ears should be) with advisors recommending different courses of action, the answers might seem apparent.  But let’s just say: if you think the answers to this problem are simple, then you’re not sufficiently informed of the dynamics of the problem.  And if you pretend that the answers are simple for the sake of political demagoguery, then you’re simply misleading your readership and not serving anyone but yourself.

Until I have a clearer sense of the right course of action, I’ll continue to note those providing interesting thoughts.

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  • John Haas

    Well, this column sure has pushed peoples’ happy buttons hasn’t it? This must be the 10th time in 24 hours someone’s waved it in my face.

    Though, tellingly, not a single on of those doing the waving is a historian or in any way competent in international affairs. Rather, pastors, “theologians,” and philosophers seem to find this inordinately impressive.

    There’s a lot one could say about this column, and absolutely none of it would be kind.

    But let’s just note at his central contention: either the US continues to prop up Mubarak, or it spins off into irrelevance, and Brazil leaps over us that last remaining hegemon.

    That’s right folks . . . according to this shrewd piece of analysis, the prosperity and security of the great US of A all hangs on who rules . . . in Egypt.

    It’s stunning what people will swallow.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      John, you continue to excel in the art of caricaturing other people’s arguments. It’s stunning what some people will fail to see.

  • John Haas

    This barely deserves dignifying as an “argument.” It’s tendentious and very unhelpful–very close, in fact, to propaganda.

    Although Shavitz’s description of these events as a “revolution” is, I will grant, far better than insinuating that what we are seeing is a “deterioration.” (That definitely isn’t an “argument,” and is deserving of whatever caricature it calls forth.)

    Insofar as Shavitz has arguments, they are grounded in dubious–at times just patently false–premises.

    His positing of an American hegemony–even with his verbal hedgings–is absurd. I shouldn’t really have to provide a list of some of the things the US with it’s allies has not been able to control might begin with post-1945 Eastern Europe, note China 1949 hence, move on to Korea circa 1953 to the present, move back to Cuba from 1960 to the present, pause for quite awhile to contemplate our failed quarter-century long effort in Vietnam, and gesture towards Iran (including most of the period when we thought we had them in our hip pocket), and conclude with a decade or so of very ambiguous attempts to control Afghanistan and Iraq.

    What is worse, he not only assumes that the US has been successfully controlling the rest of the world, he seems to think we should or could continue to do so.

    So, it is “Western countries’ poor handling of the Middle East” that has brought us this revolution, as sure as “Carter’s betrayal of the Shah brought us the ayatollahs.”

    Americans have lapped this nonsense up ever since McCarthy was shrieking “who lost China?!” but the fact is we do not, and never did have, anything like the ability to control Iran, or China, or even Eastern Europe during the 1945-1949 window when we were the world’s only nuclear power.

    And, really: Carter “betrayed” the Shah, and presto, we get ayatollahs? Talk about a caricature. If anything, our installation and support for the Shah was what gave us the Shi’ite revival and its ayatollahs.

    When he says “The consequences of the West’s betrayal of Mubarak will be no less severe. It’s not only a betrayal of a leader who was loyal to the West, served stability and encouraged moderation. It’s a betrayal of every ally of the West in the Middle East and the developing world,” I suppose that sounds like a compelling argument–if you know absolutely nothing.

    If you had the perspective of an Egyptian, you’d know that there’s nothing “moderate” about Mubarak’s rule. He has, from our perspective, been good at doing two of the three things we’ve required of him–don’t start any wars with Israel, and help us out in the war on terror.

    But as events have shown, he has not established any real “stability,”and that’s a key requirement for earning continued support.

    And then we have this, utterly ridiculous, conclusion: “When the United States and Europe bury Mubarak now, they are also burying the powers they once were. In Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the age of Western hegemony is fading away.”

    Can I get a dime for every time some tin-horn 3rd world autocrat has been hailed as the indispensable lynch-pin of world order?

    Let’s go back, if we may, to Vietnam, where we were told just the same, and happily forked over billions of dollars–to the French, to South Vietnam, and then on our own hook, and sacrificed some 60,000 American and perhaps 3 million Vietnamese lives, all in the belief that our credibility–“The West’s word is no word at all; an alliance with the West is not an alliance!!!”–and hence world order, hung in the balance.

    And so we paid, and died, and lost good-will in the world, and eventually gave up.

    And now the US Navy and the navy of the victorious communists of Vietnam are doing joint maneuvers in the South China Sea.

    Sorry Tim. Shavit’s piece just isn’t worth the pixels its printed on.

  • John Haas

    So here we have it, straight from the Tea Party Express–it’s “Who lost China?” all over again:

    “[N]ews reports have surfaced indicating that Barack Obama’s administration is pressuring Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to hand over control to a new regime that would include the radical Islamic group known as “The Muslim Brotherhood.”

    “It’s part of a disturbing pattern where the Obama administration has repeatedly sided with America’s enemies, while undermining our longstanding allies.

    “The bottom line is that Obama’s foreign policy seems to parallel the same ineptness as Jimmy Carter, where America is reduced to sitting down and hearing out the grievances of those who wish us harm, and then working to appease them.”

    Not only do we have substantive McCarthyism, we have it down to the very rhetorical flourishes.

    Note, eg, that what the Obama administration is facing isn’t, say, a risky but necessary choice in favor of democracy–sort of the mirror-image of a the risky but seemingly necessary choices that have been (and are being) made in favor of autocracy. Rather what we have is a “pattern”–and, yikes! it’s a disturbing pattern at that!

    Not that we haven’t been here before. Don’t expect the Tea Party Express to remind you, but it was just a few years ago that we deposed a certain Mesopotamian autocrat with whom we had been in bed off-and-on over many years, a nasty guy in many ways, but someone who did serious yeoman work holding back the Persian ayatollahs. And now, thanks to us, the Persians have their tentacles deep into Iraq, and American tax-payers are footing the bill! Good times!

    But, here’s why you shouldn’t think about that: if you did, you’d start to conclude that, well, there’s all kinds of competing dynamics and zero-sum games and hard choices and mutually exclusive goods out there and the USA not only has to choose some and not others, but, sometimes, the choices pretty much get made for you by circumstances. There’s only so much we can do (see above).

    The problem with that is, when you start thinking that way, you miss all those “disturbing patterns” out there.

    And there’s lots of folks out there who really, really want to keep you focused on those “disturbing patterns.”

    Their political lives depend upon it.

  • Warren Jewell

    Well, Mr. Haas, I do see a sort of uniquely devised cynicism about you that I just don’t find becoming. Wear it in health, if you must; but not too often.

    All this, of all three of Dalrymple, Shavitz and Haas, fails to look ‘inward’ as the West goes. I see us as ‘Western culture’ as having lost our better influences, as wide or narrow as they have been, in an ongoing wash of – in instance and over generations – infantile citizen ‘entitlements’ that yield from and into wide-scale immaturity. It is marked not simply economically, as well, for it yields, for great, sad, deadly example, ‘children as chattel’ that they may be adult(?!) lifestyle accessories, too.

    For is not ‘culture’ best described as “what marks those folks ‘out there’ and ‘in here’”? As the Western culture was guided by all that we might call ‘Judeao-Christian’, and as that guidance has been undermined and diminished, we once had some eminence of example as well as our own guidance that we lose not merely by-year but by-election, by-demands, by-exposure of our immaturity. One might respond on that Philadelphia street, ‘Alas, Mr. Franklin we seem no longer interested in keeping that republic’. In that, America does her share to let Western culture down.

    I find the timing interesting in Europe’s cases: that as they dumped ‘the Christ’ it was partially because they were letting in true infields they sought ‘not to offend’. They thought that it was proper response in their governance for having literally dumped the babies (read: supporters for their entitlements) with the baptismal waters.

    And, Mr. Haas, I prefer the Tea Party responses, mainly driven by disappointment with even themselves, to your ‘airy superiority over it all’.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I don’t disagree here, Warren. I don’t know why people are leaping to conclusions on my feelings on the matter from the fact that I quoted Shavitz.

  • John in PDX

    Looks like the Kool-Aid has been drunk. Damn, I could of used some.

    I am pretty tired of being called a Tea Bagger because I don’t like most of Obama’s policies.

    I didn’t like a lot of Bush’s either. What was I then?

    At some point we all need to quit twisting other views because we are blind to everyone’s party but the one you support.

    Well, there is always Hemlock.