The Corner

World

Tunisia vs. Afghanistan

Outside the arch of Bab el-Bhar in Tunis, Tunisia. (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters)

Thomas Friedman has written a perplexing column, asking:

Why is it that the one Arab Spring country that managed to make a relatively peaceful transition from dictatorship to a constitutional democracy — with full empowerment for its women — is the country we’ve had the least to do with and where we’ve never sent soldiers to fight and die? It’s called Tunisia.

Yes, Tunisia, the only Middle East country to achieve the ends that we so badly desired for Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan, did so after having hosted more U.S. Peace Corps workers over the last 50 years than U.S. military advisers and after having received only about $1 billion in U.S. aid (and three loan guarantees) since its 2010-11 democracy revolution.

By comparison, the U.S. is now spending about $45 billion a year in Afghanistan — after 17 years of trying to transform it into a pluralistic democracy. That is an insane contrast.

Yes, it is.

As Friedman himself notes later in the column, Tunisia is not very much like Afghanistan, except for having a largely Muslim population. Tunisia is urban, politically and economically connected to Europe, relatively liberal, blessed by a few of the up-sides of colonialism (the French do administration pretty well), etc. Afghanistan is rural, isolated, tribal, etc. Tunisia groaned under a strongman government; Afghanistan has proved itself ungovernable, even by the most vicious of tyrants and aspiring tyrants.

Which is to say: The level and character of U.S. involvement in Tunisia probably is not among the most important variables.

That being said, there is much truth in Friedman’s larger point: that the so-called democracy project of the Bush years suffered from terrible hubris and a gross overestimate of what can be accomplished at the point of a bayonet against the invulnerable tide of culture.

But, like Cuchulain, Friedman is determined to wage war with the waves:

I’d take $2 billion of the $45 billion we’d save from getting out of Afghanistan and invest it regionally in all the cultural changes that made Tunisia unique — across the whole Arab world. I’d give huge aid to the American University in Cairo, the American University in Beirut, the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, and the American University of Afghanistan.

And I’d massively expand the scholarship program we once ran by which top Arab public school students were eligible for a U.S.-funded scholarship to any U.S.-style liberal arts college in Lebanon or anywhere else in the region.

I’d also massively expand student visas and scholarships — especially for Arab women — for study in America. And I’d offer 5,000 scholarships for Iranians to come to America to get graduate degrees in science, engineering or medicine, with visas available in Dubai. That line would be so long! Nothing would embarrass the Iranian regime more.

Those are all worthy ideas, and probably worth the money and trouble. But Friedman should heed his own advice: Tunisia is not very much like Afghanistan or Iraq. And our ability to make Afghanistan and Iraq (and Syria) more like Tunisia is probably pretty limited, irrespective of the instruments we employ in that project.

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