Washington has always been involved: either it supports kleptocracy for short-term gain or it supports a healthy development of human society, for long-term gain.
In contrast to the feel-good propaganda image of an exceptional United States led by magnificent men toiling to pacify and civilize the world that is propagated by the U.S. mainstream media via the voices of solemn-toned non-experts, the truth is vastly more embarrassing. Thomas Friedman, who can be profitably read by those trying to unravel the influence of the U.S. ruling elite and its politely kiss-up mainstream media servants, intoned in the New York Times on Mach 27 that one of the lessons we can learn from Iraq is that when the “authoritarian lid” is removed from Arab societies, repressed ethnic tensions explode. Mr. Friedman, who is certainly astute about the limits of political correctness in feel-good, ethno-centric, “no one is to blame” modern America, does not actually write about the subject of his expertise; instead, he writes about such things as the modernization of the Arab world.
One can learn much from Mr. Friedman’s writings. One can, if one thinks about how he uses words and about what he avoids saying, gain great insight into how free speech works in an intensely conformist society led by a tight elite which rejects the concept of taking responsibility for its behavior. (I’m still referring to the U.S., not Mubarak’s Egypt.) In this world, one can say, “How awful it is that those Shi’a and Sunni wrecked their country in a spasm of primitive ethnic conflict.” However, it would be rude to point out that the awful wave of ethnic conflict was provoked by the collapse of basic services (electricity, drinking water, sewage treatment), by the firing of the bureaucrats and military (who promptly became unemployed), and by the establishment of a system of laws that placed ethnic background at the core of the new colonial governing structure (see Nir Rosen’s Aftermath, especially the first chapter). Friedman does not mention those facts because that would be rude (to the colonial masters), nor of course does he mention the fact that there was a colonial master in post-Saddam Iraq; he calls the U.S. role in Iraq that of “a credible, neutral arbiter.”
The result of this convenient combination of facts and omitted facts is confusion leading to the implied conclusion that dictatorship is just what the natives need. They need many things, but perhaps first and foremost is elites who are not armed to the teeth with foreign weapons that they are then allowed to use to kill their own citizens.
This discussion of history is important because Washington at this moment sits at a tipping point: Arab populations are demanding change from dictators who are rich and powerful because they are American clients. Democracy is vibrant on the Arab street all of a sudden but at ruling elite levels, little has changed: military dictatorships are in charge, writing laws for their convenience and torturing with impunity. Washington can choose to continue offering diplomatic cover, financial support, and the weapons of totalitarian control to these elite. Or, Washington can choose to support popular demands for change and hold dictators and regime officials personally responsible for their crimes. But standing innocently to one side in pious non-involvement is not an option. When you confer weapons and wealth upon the elite and offer the people little but words, you are not a “credible, neutral arbiter.”