Across the Middle East, millions are rebelling against their poverty and lack of freedom, blaming their corrupt leaders, who have ransacked their countries’ treasuries and natural wealth. The objects of vituperation, then, are particular individual autocrats. Few in fits of introspection blame endemic cultural practices such as tribalism, gender apartheid, and religious intolerance as equally responsible for the general misery. A Mubarak, Qaddafi, Ben Ali, King Abdullah, or Assad is thus not a natural expression of a society’s collective values and customs, but supposedly an aberration, and one forced upon Middle Easterners by an array of often sinister foreign interests.
So sometimes the object of protests is a pro-American autocrat, sometimes an anti-American totalitarian. The proverbial “people” are rebelling against juntas, monarchs, collectivized tyrannies, theocrats, and run-of-the-mill dictatorships. No one knows whether new promised plebiscites will lead to constitutional governments or, as in the Iran of 1979–82, a new round of dictatorship. No one knows, either, whether an unbridled Arab Street might in fact prove more illiberal than the old illiberal rulers. All hope that the Westernized voices on the BBC and CNN are in fact speaking for the fist-shaking mobs in the street.
In such a mess, the challenge for America should have been to prod pro-American authoritarians to reform (but not to abdicate), to support staunchly our very few democratic friends, to oppose publicly anti-American totalitarians, and wherever possible to stay out of intervening militarily, given that no resistance group as of yet has proved democratic, or indeed has even published much of a liberal reform manifesto.
Instead, the Obama administration has done exactly the opposite in every case.
There are two, and only two, democratic states in the region: Israel and Iraq. The Obama administration has serially pressured the former and cannot refer to the latter without expressing regret or apology for the conditions that led to the present constitutional government. The message seems to be that pro-American democracies are either taken for granted or actively distrusted.
There are also as of now only two regimes that have collapsed: pro-American and autocratic Egypt and Tunisia. Once we saw protests against these regimes explode, the administration joined in the calls for Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Ben Ali to step down. Both did, and we understandably rejoiced at the chance of something more constitutional. Yet it is not clear what or who their replacements will be, much less whether they will be any more liberal and transparent. We do have reason to believe that the Tunisian and Egyptian protesters will probably be impervious to any American scolding about their lack of human rights and tolerance. Somehow the administration ended up seeming tardy and opportunistic to the anti-Mubarak rebels and treacherous and undependable to the pro-Mubarak establishment.
There are also two fiercely anti-American regimes in the Middle East that have combined to undermine Lebanese democracy, supplied weapons to anti-Israeli terrorists, sought nuclear-weapons capability, and sent fighters to kill Americans in Iraq, and that are most ready to slaughter in the thousands any dissidents brave enough to question their legitimacy. And our reaction? The Obama administration first promised not to meddle in Iranian unrest and then trumped that failure by keeping silent about Syria’s upheavals except to praise the murderous Assad as a “reformer.”
The jury is still out on two other countries, in which the contradictions of their rule are such that they are lose-lose situations for us, whatever we do — Saudi Arabia and Libya. The Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia account for 40 percent of the world’s exported oil, and in general are fair-weather allies to the United States. The Obama administration, after voicing tepid opposition to the region’s pro-American authoritarians and support for insurgent reform movements, at the eleventh hour suddenly stopped dead in its tracks and went silent — given the threat of oil cutbacks, the rise of Shiite theocratic movements in the Gulf, and the possibility of the collapse of Westernized culture in the region. At best, the United States looks confused, at worst chastised and put down.
Libya should have been a no-brainer. Qaddafi is a past murderer of Americans, who had held an iron grip on his oil-rich, people-sparse country for 41 years. Widespread revolt erupted spontaneously, and Qaddafi seemed a goner — in a flat, desert Mediterranean country that was made to order for short-mission NATO air strikes. But the temptation to pile on proved too much for the Obama administration — given the criticism that Obama had been late in giving a final push to Mubarak and Ben Ali, given that the French and British were, mirabile dictu, to be leading the military intervention, and given that both the Arab League and the U.N. were are on record as advocating a no-fly zone. So we intervened precipitately and did not ask who or what the rebels were, did not ponder whether a no-fly zone would have much effect on Qaddafi’s chances, did not explain whether the mission was to remove the Qaddafi clan or to save the rebels from obliteration, or both, and did not question whether the NATO allies had the desire and means to force Qaddafi out without our constant, active participation. Strangely, no one in the administration seemed to fathom how Qaddafi had held on to power, why and how his methods differed from those of Mubarak and Ben Ali, and why it would be difficult to remove him under any circumstances.
An outsider might look at the last four months in the region and reach some reductionist conclusions. Americans treat dictatorships with more deference than they do existing democracies. It is wiser for a dictatorship to be anti-American than pro-American. Survival is likelier to be assured by launching brutal, deadly crackdowns, banning the media, and ignoring global opinion than by trying to prevent mass casualties, allowing international television into the country, or accommodating U.S. concerns. The effort to acquire nuclear weapons wins exemption, as in Iran, while the surrender of such programs invites intervention, as in Libya. Oil trumps most considerations, accounting for the European attacks on Libya once the rebels seemed assured of ousting Qaddafi, the American lack of interest in pushing popular protests in the Gulf, and the American braggadocio in ordering the oil-poor dictators of Egypt and Tunisia to step down. The possibility of using American force will be predicated on international authorization, and the actuality of it will be not be decisive.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.