March 2, 2005

Freedom for the Entire Middle East? Just How Much Fight Have We Got?

And the end of the fight is a tombstone white
with the name of the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear: "A Fool lies here
who tried to hustle the East."

           -- Rudyard Kipling

LIKE ANY SENSIBLE MAN in this era of universal bad news, I tend to take any good news I can find, but I always try to take it with a grain of salt.

Over the month of February, the news about freedom and liberty has been especially good. An election in Iraq so triumphant that even the New York Times has been forced to acknowledge it. The continuing destruction of the terrorists in Iraq on a daily basis. Renewed hopes for a final and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace. Promises of greater freedom in Egypt and even Saudi Arabia from the ossified rulers of those primitive states. Movements of the masses to insist on liberty and freedom in Lebanon. Shake-ups in Syria. The continued reminders of the much-touted youth movement of Iran that's ready to replace the mullahs with MTV. And the fading of the "Arab street" as an operating cliche. All that's left is for Johnny Apple to eat congealed quagmire pie on Meet the Press and my little world will be complete.

All this makes me very happy, very pleased. It is delicious to be right, but even sweeter to say to one's opponents "I told you so." And in the last few days there's no shortage of those who were right about the attractions of liberty and freedom taking a victory lap around the media and the blogosphere with a rising chant of "Neener, neener, neener..."

All this makes me very nervous. It makes me nervous because it brings to mind the very narrow edge on which all this triumphalism is currently based: one successful election made possible by several hundred thousand of the best troops in the world.

I don't deny the triumph of the election nor the courage and desire for freedom of the Iraqis. I just worry that it has to be repeated, and repeated elsewhere, to really matter. I worry because it is not my impression that totalitarian regimes always go gently into that good night just because their people camp out in public squares in search of self-determination. A square named "Tiananmen" comes to mind in this regard. That, you will recall, did not end happily.

I think that while we can and we must enjoy this moment of expanding freedom in the Middle East, we need to reflect on what made it possible -- overwhelming force of arms. And as we do, we have to understand exactly what the people of the Middle East who are gathering in their cities and villages expecting greater freedom are depending on as they struggle to cast off their oppressors.

They are, it seems to me, depending on these words, on this promise:

"We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.

"Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world:

"All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."

That was, of course, George W. Bush in his Second Inaugural. It was noted then, and repeated in the State of the Union, that Bush was speaking not just to Americans but to the world. What this promise meant in terms of Iraq was the use of the force of arms to secure and guarantee the elections. Does this promise also mean the use of the force of American arms in Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran?

In recent days the trend among the US administration and many commentators has been to say, "Well, no. Diplomatic pressure, strongest possible terms, sanctions, and all that."

I submit that "diplomatic pressure"is not what those who dream of liberty and freedom in the fascist countries of the Middle East and elsewhere understand and expect when they hear " When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you." They hear and expect, if necessary, guns, tanks, planes and bombs. On their side.

Wouldn't you?

What happens if Syria, its regime pushed to the wall, decides to employ Hama Rules against its own people or the people of Lebanon? What exactly does America plan to do if the seekers of freedom in public squares in Lebanon and Iran are machine-gunned down by their governments? Will America send planes and troops in to rescue and avenge those who are massacred?

No, you say? You say it is not possible for America to send troops and planes in from bases mere miles away in Iraq, but it will condemn massacres in the strongest possible terms?

Very well, but then what does the promise "When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you." mean? And if it really only means, "When you stand for your liberty, we will protest to your government after they kill you " what is America's promise of freedom really worth to the dead? What is the word of America worth to the world?

Is it still, when the guns come out, worth what it was during the last days of Vietnam? Or is it now worth more? Does America mean what it says or will it be content to once more be marked down as "A Fool who tried to hustle the East"?

Only when the guns begin will we begin to know the truth.

Posted by Vanderleun at March 2, 2005 10:25 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

There is not a child in the world (or an adult I would bet) who has ever said, "neener, neener, neener."

The phrase is - nah nah nah nah nahhhh nah.

If you can't get that right, what hope is there for you?

Posted by: mark butterworth at March 2, 2005 12:57 PM

Alas, sirrah, you are wrong. Many have neener-neenered and many more will neener-neener before the last trump.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at March 2, 2005 1:00 PM

Maybe not in Iran, that's pretty obviously going to be counter-productive and a little more than we could chew. But I'll bet those Bushies are aching for a shot at Lebanon, and what's more I'll bet on someone's desk right now some guys are looking at how to go about it.

Neener is East Coast. Nah nah nah nah naaah nah was common in the Midwest. Never head neener until I moved East and suffered repeated humiliations at the hands of assorted tykes and urchins.

Posted by: spongeworthy at March 2, 2005 1:24 PM

Now who REALLY tried to hustle the East--GWB or OBL?

Posted by: slimedog at March 2, 2005 2:11 PM

The Army may be stretched tight but the Air Force has a lot of planes that aren't too busy right now. If there's a popular revolution we can give it air support. Could wind up looking a lot like the Afghanistan campaign.

Hmmm - I haven't heard of any special ops troops doing stuff in Iraq lately. Guess I don't have need to know on what they're doing now.

Posted by: Karl Gallagher at March 2, 2005 2:13 PM

Neener, neener, nah nah, nyah nyah... This is a little off the subject of bombing and spreading democracy, but do any of you guys get a reaction to a 'nooner'?

Hint, hint: Sex at lunch.

Sheesh.. Too silly today.

Posted by: Amy at March 2, 2005 2:39 PM

Jeez, Mr. Van Der Leun, did you have to call the cops? It's not even midnight yet. Are we making THAT much noise?

I know I am. I've been one of the absurdly optimistic ones about the potential for wildfire spread of democracy, and I guess I was more excited about this stuff than I realized, because until I read this it hadn't actually occurred to me that everything might not work out to my satisfaction. I can't tell if that's because I have such low expectations for the Middle East that any improvement seems like found money, or just that I'm naive and see a house of cards where in reality something more dynamic and complicated exists. I suspect that's where Kipling comes in. Hmmm.

Anyway, thanks for pulling me back from the edge, I probably can't afford to be more insufferable than I usually am.

Posted by: Uncle Mikey at March 2, 2005 3:31 PM

Do you really think Assad would try a Hama redux, GV? The whole world is watching Lebanon; Arab political consciousness is higher than it's been in decades; and America and Europe, for once, are unambiguously allied against him. Considering the response to Hariri's assassination, I think he's inclined to tread very lightly now lest another heavy-handed action bring the protesters out in Damascus, too.

I haven't read or seen anything indicating imminent rebellion in Syria or Iran so I assume those two governments are going to play it safe by lying low and hoping for something to go wrong in Baghdad or Beirut. But if an uprising does break out and is put down by violent means, then yeah, I think harsh words will be the extent of the administration's response: after all the teeth-gnashing and shirt-rending over Iraq, it's going to take an awful lot before GWB pulls the trigger on another invasion. And it's not like a strongly-worded denunciation would be entirely worthless; having America and Europe on his side surely helped Yushchenko and his supporters.

One more point. I think the fact that Shiites are in ascendance in the region means that if an attack on Iran's nuclear reactor is coming, it'll have to be the U.S. and not Israel that undertakes it. If the Israelis hit Iran, the mullahs will try to use "the Zionist enemy's aggression," etc., to drum up Shiite solidarity in Iraq and Lebanon (assuming Hezbollah joins the new government) and turn the political tides in those countries towards reactionism. It's harder for them to do that if we hit the reactor because we've proven our good faith, by and large, to the Shiites in Iraq. So I think the die is cast -- assuming, er, that Bush actually goes and casts it.

Posted by: Allah at March 2, 2005 4:37 PM

I worry because it is not my impression that totalitarian regimes always go gently into that good night just because their people camp out in public squares in search of self-determination. A square named "Tiananmen" comes to mind in this regard.

Perhaps it is also a matter of what political flavor and how long-established the totalitarian regime is, and the size of the country?

Posted by: P.A. Breault at March 2, 2005 5:59 PM

It is, I think, mostly a matter of how well armed the people actually are. In the absence of an armed populace and in the presence of an unscrupulous totalitarian government, the only real hope for the people comes from an outside intervention powered by force of arms.

Posted by: Gerard Van Der Leun at March 2, 2005 6:32 PM

I think that is exactly what GWB wants everyone to believe - military capability and political will are overstretched. I don't think they are as nearly as stretched as believed and I don't think GWB gives much of a concern over elite opinion if he believes the US would benefit by forcefully defending a popular uprising in Lebanon or other key place. We shall see.

Posted by: phil g at March 3, 2005 7:30 AM