The Wave Rolls On

In the Middle East, these are interesting times — which means these also are interesting times in the halls of the State Department.

With popular protests having brought down the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, the wave of demonstrations for democracy is sweeping on to other countries in the region.  We are seeing unrest in Bahrain, violent encounters between government forces and anti-government activists in Libya, and clashes between police and protesters in Yemen.  Governments in places like Jordan are trying to implement reforms that they hope will quell popular unrest.  The wave has even reached Iran, where there have been confrontations between security forces and supporters of opposition to the government.

It is not clear yet how big, or how powerful, this wave of protest against undemocratic regimes will be.  Waves are unpredictable.  Sometimes waves that look enormous peter out, and waves also can be indiscriminate in their destructive force.  In a year, we could see a Middle East that looks pretty much the same as it does right now, or we could see an area filled with many new governments.  And if that is the result, who knows whether the governments will support peace with Israel and be favorably inclined to America, or whether we will see more governments predicated on intolerant religious fundamentalism, or whether we will see something else entirely?  In America, and in Israel, we watch with anticipation and dread as the wave rolls on.

Holding Our Breath

In the United States, the decision of Hosni Mubarak to yield power to a supreme military tribunal should be a cause for circumspection, not celebration.

Much as we understand and appreciate the desire of the Egyptian people to throw off the reins of an authoritarian regime, there is no assurance at present that whatever government will eventually follow Mubarak will be a real improvement in terms of permitting democracy and recognizing human rights.  From this point forward, prudence would seem to suggest that the United States should refrain from public statements about developments in Egypt in favor of careful diplomacy that works behind the scenes to ensure an inclusive, democratic Egyptian government that respects and honors Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

We also should recognize that the fall of Mubarak no doubt will leave every government in the Middle East — from Israel, to Jordan, to Saudi Arabia — feeling a bit shaken and concerned about the possibility of additional popular uprisings.  Sweeping pronouncements from the United States about what should be done may not be welcome.  We should hold our breath, keep our own counsel, and see what happens next.

A Region In Turmoil, And A Foreign Policy In The Balance

A dictatorial government has been overthrown in Tunisia.  Protests continue to rage in Egypt, causing long-time leader Hosni Mubarak to reshape his government and to declare that he will not seek “re-election.”  Whether he can remain in power until September, as he plans, is anyone’s guess.  Significant protests also have occurred in Jordan and Yemen. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in remarks reported by the BBC, has said that the entire Mideast region is in the grip of powerful forces and that the status quo is not sustainable.  The inevitable question is whether other countries in the region — such as Lebanon, Syria, Libya, and even Saudi Arabia — also will be the site of mass protests and regime change.

Revolutions — even revolutions that, like the protests in Egypt, seem to be motivated by desire for freedom and democracy — can be unpredictable in their results.  Were the bloody Jacobin governments and eventually the reign of Napoleon really preferable to the corrupt French monarchy?  History teaches that there can be no assurance that, long-term, the governments that may replace the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes will be preferable to those that went before.

These circumstances present foreign policy challenges that are far more difficult than any yet confronted by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton.  They will be asked to make quick decisions in the face of fast-moving events, decisions that may have profound consequences.  All Americans, whether Republican, Democrat, or independent, should hope that their decisions help to produce a Middle East that is more stable and more democratic, rather than the opposite — because the opposite could be catastrophic.