Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, especially today in the Maghreb and Middle East.
For the ouster of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has sent shock waves from Rabat to Riyadh. Autocrats, emirs and kings have to be asking themselves: If rioters can bring down Ben Ali with his ruthless security forces, what prevents this from happening here?
Millions of militant Muslim young who have never shared in the wealth produced by the oil and gas must be asking: If Tunisians can take down a detested regime, why cannot we?
America had no role in this uprising, and our diplomats had been appalled at the corruption. Yet Ben Ali was an ally in the war on terror, and what happened in Tunisia could trigger a series of devastating blows to the U.S. position in the Middle East.
For when autocrats fall, it is not always democracy that rises. And in the Middle East, democracy is not necessarily America’s ally.
The fall of King Farouk in 1952 led to Col. Nasser in Egypt. The ouster and murder of King Faisal in Iraq in 1958 led to Saddam. The fall of King Idris in Libya in 1969 led to Gadhafi. The fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia in 1974 led to the rise of the murderous Col. Mengistu. And the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 led to the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Often the old saw applies: “Better the devil we know…”
And should a new wave of revolts sweep the region, we might see the final collapse of the neoconservative foreign policy of George W. Bush.
That Mideast policy rested on several pillars: uncritical support of Israel, invasions to oust enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq, and U.S. occupations to rebuild and convert these nations into democracies.
Well before he left office, these policies had made the region so anti-American that Bush was himself, in opinion surveys, viewed less favorably by the Muslim masses than Osama bin Laden.
And when Bush, having declared at his 2005 inaugural that his goal was now to “end tyranny in our world,” called for elections in the Middle East, he got the results his policies had produced.
In Palestine, Hamas swept to power. In Lebanon, Hezbollah made such gains it was brought into the Lebanese government it has just brought down. When Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak allowed some electoral districts to be contested, the Muslim Brotherhood won most of them.
In Iran in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected and became an instant favorite of the Arab masses because of his hostility toward Israel. The trend continued in the Iraqi elections of 2010, which enhanced the prestige and power of the anti-American Muqtada al-Sadr.
The message from the Mideast has been consistent and clear: When elections are held, or monarchs and autocrats overthrown, the masses will turn to leaders who will pull away from America and stand in solidarity with the Palestinians.
Turkey is a case in point. Before he invaded Iraq, Bush asked Ankara for permission to attack from its territory in the north, as well as Kuwait in the south. The Parliament of this NATO ally of 50 years refused permission.
Since then, Turkey has been moving away from America, away from Israel, and closer to the Islamic peoples of a region Ottoman Turks ruled for centuries.
George H.W. Bush abjured “the vision thing.” But George W. had a road-to-Damascus experience during 9/11. He became a true believer that the security of his country and the peace of the world depended on a global conversion to democracy. And he would do the converting.
This is the ideology of democratism. Bush’s zealotry in pursuing his new faith blinded him to the reality that whatever their failings, the kings of Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and Mubarak are more reliable friends than any regime that might come out of one-man, one-vote elections.
Why, other than ideology, would a leader demand that a friendly regime hold elections if it were a near certainty the regime to come out of those elections would be more hostile to one’s own country?
Dwight Eisenhower preferred the Shah to Mohammad Mossadegh, though the latter had been elected. Ike backed the coup. Richard Nixon preferred Gen. Augusto Pinochet to Chile’s pro-Castro President Salvador Allende, who was elected. The general was with us.
Yet this raises anew the question: Why do they hate us?
In the 19th century, European monarchs disliked our republic, but their people loved us. Through World War II and much of the Cold War, the peoples of the Middle East saw America as the champion of liberation from imperial rule. We were first to throw the British out.
Perhaps we have lost the people of the Middle East, while winning the allegiance of their autocratic rulers, because we, too, have become an empire — and no longer see ourselves as others see us.