The lesson of Bahrain’s perturbations is that when a country is prosperous, its people want freedom. The takeaway message of non-democratic government in the last 50 years is that those who put democracy ahead of economic development just get back to despotism, and economic progress is spotty (as in Russia). Those who put economic development first, achieve prosperity and then democracy, as South Korea, Chile, Taiwan, and even Spain have shown. China need not have overreacted so severely at Tiananmen in 1989, and would have done just as well doing what the Bahrain government is doing, and clearing the square without killing anyone. But gradually, as in South Korea and Taiwan, freedom comes.
I have written here many times that the “Arab street” is bunk. All those leaders know how to deal with mobs, provided that the mobs are just whipped-up, choreographed armies of boobs waving Palestinian flags, or provided that — if the mobs are more purposeful — whatever repression is necessary can be carried out discreetly. Israel is, in the end, a red herring to the whole Muslim world, useful to distract the same masses from the almost uniform misgovernment inflicted on them. And as other commentators have pointed out, the absence of Palestinian flags in all these demonstrations has been deeply gratifying, and significant. But where the late presidents Hafez Assad of Syria and Saddam Hussein of Iraq massacred thousands of people at a stroke and prevailed, these were partly described as tribal quarrels and therefore somewhat time-honored methods of problem-solving, and were carried out in times when it was much easier to keep the public-relations lid on such outrages than is now possible.
It is unlikely that whatever government emerges in Egypt will be a significant change from what Egypt has had, unless someone there understands the need for economic growth and tries to replicate, as much as is possible in a tropical Muslim country, the South Korean model. But where governments are so brutal and incompetent that the people are disgusted and the elites want real change, all things are possible. When the Libyan air force defects and air-force colonels fly their own jets to Malta rather than bomb their countrymen, and the eastern part of the country has ejected the regime, Gaddafi’s hold is very tenuous. And the colonel is unlikely to damp down skepticism by telling the world, as he just did: “These are reactionary cowards. Libya wants glory. Europe and Asia and all continents will be led by Libya. We are more qualified than others. . . . Libya will lead America, lead Asia, lead the whole world. . . . I will be a martyr in the end.” May the end come quickly.
There is one other aspect of this sequence of events that is noteworthy: No outsiders to the region have played an effective role. The need for the United States to involve itself in these places, and its ability to do so, are almost over. It has a role with Israel and the moderate Arabs, but it is only to assure the permanence of Israel as a last resort. Russia doesn’t threaten Western Europe, and couldn’t if it wished to. China, for all its bombast about predestined hegemony, will be contained, politically and economically (there will be no clash of arms), by a Japanese-Indian-Indonesian and probably Russian alliance, with Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, South Korea, and perhaps Taiwan also. Latin America has absorbed Venezuela; the Castros have become non-Communist environmentalists. No one is threatened by Morales (Bolivia) or the Ecuadorian, Rafael Correa (who imagined he was the target of a coup when police took him to the hospital after demonstrating when he canceled the gift of a house and a medal with each promotion in the senior ranks). American intervention in Honduras, a country with a tenth of the population and a quarter of the per capita national income of Egypt, last year, was on the wrong side and, fortunately, a total failure. The soufflé of American world supremacy has fallen at the time that it has become surplus to requirements. The United States must renovate itself.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at [email protected].