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.
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.
The price increases are largely supply-driven and are expected to be long-lasting, according to the experts. Weather conditions, such as droughts, floods, and cyclones, have interfered with normally farming and harvest patterns and have kept food from the marketplace. Other factors affecting supply include the increasing efforts to use food as fuel — the heavily subsidized corn ethanol industry in the United States is a good example — and the spread of cities into areas that used to be agricultural producers. And as we all know from the law of supply and demand, when available supply does not meet demand, prices will increase. That is precisely what has happened.
If history teaches us anything, it is that food and famine often effect revolutionary change. The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and countless other incidents of regime overthrow have been motivated by the actions of hungry, desperate people. The recent unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, and other parts of the Middle East also is being attributed, at least in part, to food prices and hunger. Leaders of regimes in those volatile, hungry parts of the world must be wondering whether they soon will be going the way of Nicholas and Alexandra and Marie Antoinette.