My initial interest in an op-ed column column about Tunisia actually appearing in the New York Times yesterday (after having ignored the entire debacle for weeks on end) was quickly tempered by the first sentence, and soon turned to outrage and ranting to anyone who would listen about the blatant – and disgraceful – orientalist-imperialist perspective from which Robert Kaplan writes.
Kaplan begins by describing “a month of peaceful protests.” This brings to mind Kumbaya, weed, and light-hearted movies about Vietnam draft-dodging. But this doesn’t describe Tunisia. To what peacefulness is he referring? Perhaps the demonstrators were non-violent, but he ignored the riot police and soldiers beating, gassing, and spraying protestors. This does not non-violence make. If you’ve seen any of the pictures (like these ones), they are pretty much exactly what you see in IDF violence against demonstrators in Israel/Palestine. Clearly, this dude has not been following the same reports on Tunisia that the rest of us have.
I don’t know as much about the history and politics of North Africa as I probably should, but I’ll take his facts as facts and his analysis with a large grain of salt. In any case, his initial point that Tunisia is probably not a reliable measurement of the future of revolution in the Arab World is well taken and, I think, accurate. Tunisia is historically and geographically distinct from the post-colonial conglomerates you see across much of NA and the ME.
But after he made this point, he should have stopped. Instead, he continues, to inform us that the “benighted countries in the Arab world” are too primitive to be trusted to rule themselves or elect their own leadership, and we must trust governance of the Middle East to Westernized autocrats.
I will gloss over the blatant disregard for popular support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Kaplan’s referral to “Islamic extremists” in Egypt “waiting in the wings” to ostensibly take over the country ASAP. Did I imagine this, or wasn’t there something recently about how the Muslim Brotherhood was all for cooperating with minorities in Egypt? He lists the political and national disasters in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, but completely ignores any interventionism, meddling, or colonial/post-colonial repercussions. Revisionism to prove Orientalism.
And still, it gets so much better.
Another thing to keep in mind: in terms of American interests and regional peace, there is plenty of peril in democracy. It was not democrats, but Arab autocrats, Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, who made peace with Israel. An autocrat firmly in charge can make concessions more easily than can a weak, elected leader — just witness the fragility of Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank government. And it was democracy that brought the extremists of Hamas to power in Gaza. In fact, do we really want a relatively enlightened leader like King Abdullah in Jordan undermined by widespread street demonstrations?
So here’s what I learned today:
1. American interest = regional peace ≠ democracy. So much for American propaganda.
2. Peace with Israel is the penultimate product of a friendly Arab regime, supporting Israel being apparently in the interest of the world, which evidently coincides with the narrow interest of Israel itself and misguided American strategy.
3. Abbas’ West Bank government is “elected”, which here means “installed as a puppet by the Israeli military-security state”.
4. Hamas’s one trait is “extremism.”
5. Deerfield Academy- and Oxford-educated British-English speakers are the most enlightened leaders ever to reign over Trans-Jordan. It’s still 1946, right?
6. Street demonstrations are a dirty dirty behavior. Do. Not. Participate.
Democracy is bad, because it leads to popularly elected parties and leaders. We enlightened Westerners know better what ignorant Arabs need than they themselves do. Let’s sure hope those demonstrations don’t get out of hand and, God forbid, popular governments are installed anywhere in the Middle East ever again. (Then again, if Israel is the standard for Middle Eastern democracy, I might be able to get on Kaplan’s page here.)
Well, I don’t know why I’m surprised; Kaplan is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. I probably should have stopped reading as soon as I read his bio. I just hope someone writes something less heinous and the Times actually prints it. I know, I know, keep dreaming.