5 years ago
In a Daily Beast article yesterday, Peter Beinhart takes a measure of relief in the fact the United States seemingly has nothing to do with the apparent uprising in Tunisia that has (for the time being) tossed out the autocrat, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
What a great country we have. Where else would you find opinion leaders applauding evidence of their own country’s irrelevance to international affairs?
The critical thing to understand about the movements stirring against tyranny in Tunisia, and throughout the Arab world, is this: They aren’t about us. And that might be a good thing.
Beinhart’s point, in essence, seems to follow along these lines: Tunisians rose up against the oppressor-thugocracy without American help, therefore American support for oppressed peoples– particularly in the Middle East– is not only unnecessary but actually counterproductive. Furthermore, he seems to argue, the Tunisian experience validates the view he terms “optimist” that freedom/democracy is an irresistible force that will, eventually, prevail. (This he contrasts with the straw-man “militarist” view that democracy can only spread along with American power and influence).
To be fair, Beinhart does concede eventually that it is a “good thing for the U.S. government to want democracy in the Middle East.” This is a nice concession that, afterall, we should not feel guilty about wanting democratic governments in the Middle East. It’s just that we shouldn’t want to do anything about it.
This allergy to the use of American power in the world is, however, disturbing on two levels.
First, it is incredibly naive. We can all agree that the Tunisians have shown incredible bravery while, at the same time, acknowledging that the prospects for a democratic government taking hold there are slim to none without some type of external assistance. The chances, moreover, that the autocratic governments in the Middle East will somehow fall to a rising tide of purely indigenous democracy without external aid is equally fanciful.
Second, and perhaps most disturbing, Beinhart’s approach is incredibly wrong. Immoral. How can we, as Americans, stand idly by while unarmed, peaceful protesters are clubbed, raped or gunned down by the security forces of pariah regimes?
It is simply not in our national character to refuse aid to any people that is willing to put their lives on the line to gain their freedom from oppression.
Does this require that the U.S. send in the tanks every time there is a political protest put down by government violence? No. Rather, there should be a sliding scale of involvement that begins, at the very least, with persistent and public expressions of condemnation toward the regime, followed by economic and/or diplomatic sanctions, followed (where appropriate) by tangible aid to the democratic movement (covert if necessary) and, at the extreme end of the scale, open, military assistance. This approach leaves plenty of time and opportunity for public debate over the merits and extent of support. But there can be no argument, such as the one Beinhart hints at, that the U.S. do nothing.
We have already seen the consequences of Beinhart’s approach. In 1991, tens of thousands of Iraqi shia in Basra were killed by Saddam Hussein’s thugs when they revolted in 1991. The U.S. did nothing and paid the price 12 years later when radical Islam had taken root in the region, making pacification infinitely more costly. The democracy movement in Iran is another example of ordinary citizens giving up their lives for a chance at freedom. Obama, clearly favoring the Beinhart approach, has left them helpless against determined torture and murder by the regime. Sudan and the Congo stand out as well. Oppressed people of the world have rightly looked to the U.S. and we did nothing, absolutely nothing to help. These are blots on our national honor.
In the end, Peter Beinhart may be right on one point: democracy and freedom may (somehow) break out in the Middle East without meaningful U.S. support. Anything is possible.
The real question, however, is this: why should we ever want that kind of world?