The Arab Spring and Iraq

The Arab Spring, as a moniker for the revolution that seemed about to sweep the Middle East earlier this year, has given way to far less cheerful seasonal metaphors — from long, hot summer to dark, dismal winter. In Egypt, where “people power” toppled Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt dictatorship, the dream of freedom has morphed into a nightmare of mob violence and military crackdown. In other countries whose dictators have been more willing to use extreme savagery to hold on to power, the opposition is getting slaughtered — except for Libya, where Western intervention has made the difference.

What lessons should we learn from these depressing developments? And should these lessons include a reassessment of the war in Iraq?

The first lesson is that when it comes to world politics, cynicism is, alas, a safe bet. A few months ago, people who cautioned that the upheaval in the Mideast could lead to the rise of dangerously radical regimes were commonly labeled as paranoid naysayers if not bigots. When Sen. John McCain sounded such a warning last February, the leftist Web site lambasted him for negativity toward a movement pursuing “freedom and self-determination.”

Concerns about politicized Islamic fundamentalism were dismissed because the victorious anti-Mubarak activists were mainly young and modern. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof shrugged off Islamism as a “bogeyman,” asserting that the Coptic Christians he interviewed in Egypt were baffled and offended when he asked if the revolution might end in a more oppressive society.

What would those Copts say now when their community faces escalating aggression? A recent protest by Christians demanding a stop to the violence was brutally dispersed by soldiers, leaving 25 dead and hundreds injured. Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper al-Watani, tells Reuters that “the new emerging faction of Islamists and Salafists [Muslim ultra-fundamentalists] has created havoc since the January revolution.” Nearly 100,000 Christians have fled Egypt.

Other pessimistic predictions, too, are looking prescient. The upcoming parliamentary elections are almost certain to make the Muslim Brotherhood Egypt’s single dominant party — and the military is poised to indefinitely delay full transfer of power to civilians. Meanwhile, measures to stop weapons smuggling to Hamas across the Egyptian border have been virtually discontinued.

The point is not that any revolution in a Muslim country is likely to slide into violent fanaticism; rather, revolutions in general are liable to fall into the hands of the worst factions, be it communists or Islamists. (Even the much-praised secular activists who helped bring down Mubarak are probably more likely to be Che Guevara lovers than classical liberals.)

Critics of the Arab Spring have been accused of supporting democracy in other countries only when those countries do what the West wants. That’s a crude caricature, but it is related to a pesky fact: Peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy is more likely when the revolution is friendly to America and its allies. This was evident in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. Today, of the Arab Spring countries, the most encouraging situation is probably in Tunisia: While a moderate Islamic party is set to lead in the upcoming elections, it is a party that pledges to respect secular law, boasts female candidates who don’t wear the veil and promises expanded trade with the United States.

Unfortunately, Western and American involvement is no panacea either. We do not know whether the Libyan rebels effectively backed by the United States will bring about positive change or a Taliban-style fiasco: despite their professed liberal values, some of their leaders have jihadist ties and are evasive on whether they favor a sharia-governed Islamic state. Now, foreign-policy interventionists lament the West’s failure to help rid Syria of its homicidal tyrant, Bashar al-Assad. But who or what will follow in his wake?

In a recent column, Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl suggests that the woes of the Arab Spring cast the now-reviled Iraq war in a better light: Today’s Iraq, where violence has quieted and rival groups are learning coexistence, is a model for “what Syria, and much of the rest of the Arab Middle East, might hope to be.” Yet the road to this peace lies through several years of strife that took more than 100,000 lives — and it’s not all in the past: An outbreak of violence against Christians took dozens of lives less than a year ago.

Diehl argues that if Syria’s Assad falls, the sectarian and tribal violence could be even worse, without American and allied troops to curb it. Most controversially, he concludes that the invasion of Iraq has been somewhat vindicated — and that “Syrians may well find themselves wishing that it had happened to them.”

There have been predictable cries of outrage at the claim that anyone would welcome a U.S. invasion. But that’s not an outrageous notion unless one wears left-wing blinders: For all the hardships in Iraq, polls consistent ly show about half of Iraqis supporting the 2003 invasion. Still, another Iraq with its human and social costs on both sides is now unthinkable. Too many roads to hell have been paved by humanitarian intentions.

Today, democracy promotion tends to be viewed as naively arrogant: Who are we to bring freedom to other countries? One answer is that “we” — the United States and other industrial democracies — are, for all our flaws, the possessors of the only working model of a free society, as well as a civilization with unmatched economic, cultural and military power. There is no arrogance in seeking to advance the universal values of liberty and human rights — as long as we do so with a sense of realism, and of our own limitations.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe. She is the author of “Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.”