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

The Deterioration of the Middle East – and the Decline of the West? February 4, 2011

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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