Violence is spreading incrementally throughout the Arab world, with repercussions in Iran and Turkey. Plainly something big, something that could be historic, is at hand. The world, the “international community” that is such a figment in the speeches of President Obama, does not know how to interpret this violence, and even less how to react to it. Not so long ago Colonel Qaddafi was an honored guest in Western capitals, and Western air strikes on Libyan military installations were unimaginable.
The root of the trouble seems obvious enough, namely that every Arab state is a despotism. Arab kings and presidents are nowhere ruling with the consent of the ruled. All alike depend on their police and security apparatus. Fear and the absence of freedom stifle creativity and choke progress in every respect. People are frustrated enough to be permanently close to insurrection, and their rulers are likewise permanently prepared to oppress. Even quite small crises therefore have the seeds of violence.
The present unanimous demonstration of Arab unhappiness may have some copy-cat aspect, but it is impressive: All want their rulers out and a different life. Rulers have little leeway in responding. The Saudi king is attempting to buy his subjects off with handouts of billions of dollars. Less wealthy, the Algerian, Moroccan, and Jordanian rulers are offering subsidies for food and fuel. Since the people are asking for justice, money is here more of a placebo than a remedy. As the stakes rise, the ruler has to decide what degree of violence will preserve his rule. For every one of them, that is a test of character intimately connected to the reliability of the police and security apparatus. The systemic defect of despotism could hardly be clearer.
The ruler of Tunisia flunked. The ruler of Egypt tried to survive through cunning but his military colleagues wouldn’t let him get away with it. The rulers of Bahrain and Yemen are calibrating how much violence is needed to keep control; small numbers of the dead may be enough. The ruler of Syria began by bribing his people, but in the face of their desperation he is preparing for the bloodbath that may occur any day now. Carrying the logic of despotism to the bitter end, Qaddafi will either kill enough people to subdue the population and baffle the West, or be killed. We’ve been here before. Invading Iraq, President George W. Bush installed a rule that has the consent of the ruled. However long and difficult, that’s how to be rid of despotism. Reluctantly, almost accidentally, Obama could introduce in Libya the pluralism Bush deliberately gave Iraq. That’s marvelously ironic, or maybe the course of history is determined after all.