Friday, January 21, 2011

One Short, Exciting Week in the Mideast

The Muslim world, wracked by political instability over the past week, took a step in a new direction while Washington remained focused on domestic political squabbles of little historic significance.

Hezbollah reminded the world of its new (thanks to Israel’s 2006 invasion) political power by toppling the tenuously balanced regime in Lebanon, amid a flood of rumors about the degree of pro-Washington bias among the judges examining the evidence surrounding Hariri’s murder. Score 1 for radical Islamic dissenters from Washington-centric globalization. Score -1 for Washington.

People power toppled Tunisia’s corrupt dictatorship, with Washington bug-eyed and flustered on the sidelines. Score 1 for moderates. Score -1 for Washington.

Ankara briefly tried following the West’s line on Lebanon, got slapped down by Tehran and changed its tune to one of inclusivity toward all regional players, intervened at a high diplomatic level, and fell on its face. Score 1 more for radical Islamic dissenters from Washington-centric globalization and 1 for all those interested in chaos (e.g., al Qua’ida, Israeli expansionists). Score -1 for Washington. Score -1 for moderates.

A new wave of terrorism swept across Iraq, with Washington again appearing helpless on the sidelines. Score 1 for al Qua’ida. Score -1 for Washington.

And all this came against the background of:

What all this adds up to is difficult to say: while the intensity of ferment means that something historic might happen, very strong counter-arguments suggest that, over the short run, nothing will. Jordan, for example, is “not Tunisia” (Laurie A. Brand, “Why Jordan Isn’t Tunisia,” The Middle East Channel) and, so far, it seems that Egypt is not either (Eric Tragger, “After Tunisia, Is Egypt Next?” Atlantic), nor is Syria (Josh Landis on Syria Comment). Indeed, day after day, utterly inexcusable dictatorships all over the map fail to be overthrown; the weather tomorrow will be just like today…except if there is a tornado.

Nevertheless, this week did see a widespread pattern of declining American influence and rising opportunities for regional agents of change. Moderates scored better than usual in a region dominated by extremists, but guess who is likely to benefit from change, if Washington continues to turn its back on those favoring democracy, civil rights, and positive-sum solutions! If one views regional politics as a simplistic zero-sum competition, then Washington lost a lot in one week. If one views regional politics as a complex system of interdependent actors, then a lot of positions shifted this week – but not randomly. Rather, an evolutionary process is apparent, and those who wish to resist it will have to scramble fast to make up the ground they lost this week.

Michele Dunn on the lessons of Tunisia

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