I have been watching the news from the Middle East this past two weeks with trepidation and a lot of ambivalence. Since the end of colonialism, the Middle East has almost universally been plagued with a oppressive dictators and monarchs. Oil money has kept many of them in power, but so has fear. Fear not so much by the Arab peoples, but by foreign governments. It is the fear of what comes next. If the United States government has not spoken particularly forcefully in favor of the rioters these past two weeks, it is because the memory of Iran looms large in this nation’s collective memory.
In the 1950’s the United States and Britain made the inexcusable and disastrous mistake of helping to overthrow Iran’s democratically-elected government in favor of the Shah. The government, for whatever faults it may have had, kept the Shah in check and maintained a functioning and successful democracy. Iran’s democratically-elected leaders made a choice that they within their right–they nationalized their oil. In response, Britain and the United States orchestrated a coup. Prior to the coup, the Shah was extremely weak; afterwards he was a dictator. In 1979, the Iranians revolted against him, but the theocrats co-opted the revolution. The United States and Iran have been in a standoff since then. All the problems and oppression that the Iranian people have suffered since 1979, including the failure of the Green Revolution, can be traced back to the 1953 coup. As can Iran’s terrifying nuclear ambitions.
What the United States government is afraid of now is a repeat of Iran. As with the Shah, the United States has supported many of the dictators who have been overthrown (Tunisia) or are about to be (Egypt, Yemen, elsewhere?). Yes, the United States has looked the other way because of oil, but it has also looked the other way because of a fear of another Middle Eastern nation being overtaken by zealous fanatics. For that reason, as the Arab dictators maintained a pro-West outlook, the Western powers overlooked the dictators’ unforgivable failings.
Now the crisis that everyone feared has arrived, and there are no easy answers. To date, democracy in the Middle East has led primarily to violence and the rise of radical terror organizations–Lebanon, the Palestinians, Iraq. The thread of another Iran is probably inevitable. The West thought this problem might happen at Mubarak’s death, but was unprepared for this to happen so quickly. When Mubarak finally goes (and it looks to be a matter of time), who will stop the radicals from turning Egypt into Iran, or worse Somalia?
The dictators have for years suppressed all moderate and liberal opposition while inexplicably allowing Al Qaeda-like terrorist groups to flourish. This policy boggles the mind and reeks of hubris–Mubarak especially should have known better given what happened to Sadat. But the dictators were more scared of losing power legitimately than they were of a rebellion they figured they could easily squelch. They were too secure in their own authority, and now they are paying.
Across the Middle East a fire is burning. I fear what will be left when it is finally quenched.