The turmoil sweeping across the Middle East — the rise of popular insurrections against long-ruling totalitarian regimes — is remarkable and unprecedented. But in another way, it’s really nothing that new.
The third world is filled with quasi-nations, countries defined by lines on maps that follow little sociological or political or cultural or geographic sense, divided by lines dreamed up by colonialists. Within and across those countries, people are constantly uniting and dividing themselves as they see fit, and every now and then changing the governments, boundaries, and even names of the nations involved. It’s mainly been in sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s hardly exclusive to that portion of the world — look around at the places we used to call Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Burma, and Ceylon, just to name a few.
No, the things that make what is happening in the Middle East so noteworthy are several factors that haven’t applied before.
1) Technology. Thanks to the explosion of the internet, the world is a much smaller place. We can see what is happening in “real time,” and in exquisite detail. The entire world is now our back yard, and we don’t end up waiting a week or so to hear “oh, by the way, Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe.”
2) The domino effect. This theory was tossed around during the Cold War, with the theory that if one nation falls to the Communists, then their neighbors would be likely to go next. There was some truth to the theory — Communism was (and is) an expansionist, aggressive, virulent ideology, the political equivalent of herpes. But in the current case, it’s the technology and instant communications cited above that allows protesters in one nation to inspire like-minded folks in other nations to follow their example.
3) This one is the scariest — the potential effect on the world’s economic condition. This current wave of populist revolt is hitting in places that can severely harm the world’s economy. Bahrain and Iran sit on the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil supply. Egypt holds the Suez Canal, quite possibly the most significant passage for world trade of all kinds. Libya holds tremendous oil reserves. Instability affecting any one of them could have catastrophic results; turmoil that disrupts the Persian Gulf, the Suez Canal, and large portions of the Arab oil reserves could easily trigger a Greatest Depression.
4) This one is almost trivial, but still worth mentioning — remember all the leftists who ranted and raved (falsely) about how “the US armed Saddam” and “the US supplied Saddam with chemical weapons?” Well, in Libya, Kadaffi’s thugs are using a lot of weapons marked “Made in France” or “Made in Germany” or “Made in England.” Especially “Made In France.” Will France be called to task for supporting and enabling that tyrant?
Yeah, purely rhetorical. Not a chance.
In the face of all this, many people ask: what should the US do?
A more honest and realistic question is, “what can the US do?” The answer to that is, very little. Our ability to influence such events as these are minimal — and they are even less, with the current administration. Obama’s reluctance to exercise American influence is legendary, and his foreign policy seems based on the philosophy of “punish our friends and reward our enemies.” There simply isn’t a hell of a lot we can do to sway events, and none of the active parties in any of these revolutions don’t seem that interested in anything we might have to say or do in their matters.
As Bette Davis said over 60 years ago, “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”