Here’s the classic way to write a column about Tunisia. First, you lay out the drama: People are burning themselves in protest! The country is in the throes of revolution! Second, you speculate about what might happen next: Tunisia could replace its brain-dead dictatorship with an elected government, and therefore inspire democrats across the Middle East, or the forces of repression could return, perhaps aided by chaos, and the Arab world could sink further into stagnation and despair. Third, you call on the president of the United States to save the day: If President Obama lends his voice to the people demanding democracy in Tunisia, then freedom might triumph from across the Arab world!
Unlikely. President Obama should do whatever he can to support Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution,” and his administration has been moving in that direction, but it probably won’t matter. The critical thing to understand about the movements stirring against tyranny in Tunisia, and throughout the Arab world, is this: They aren’t about us. And that might be a good thing.
Since the Cold War’s end, three different groups of American intellectuals have been arguing about the future of global democracy. Call them the optimists, the relativists, and the militarists. The optimists, led by Francis Fukuyama, argued that democracy would spread to more and more of the globe because only it could meet people’s aspirations for a better life. The relativists, led by Samuel Huntington, denied that democracy was a universal creed, and argued that the more the U.S. pushed it, the more civilizations would clash. Finally, the militarists, led by Robert Kagan, argued that democracy could spread further, but only if American power did, too.
In the last few years, the relativists and militarists have had the optimists on the ropes. The great “third wave” of democratization that washed across Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, and parts of Africa in the 1980s and 1990s has crested and begun to recede. According to Freedom House, which grades countries on how free they are, liberty has declined every year for the last four. For relativists, this is nothing to weep about: Russia is reasserting control over its authoritarian sphere; China is asserting control over its, and the fact that America can’t, or won’t, do much about it is good for world peace. For the militarists, it’s a calamity: America must return to the confrontational policies of the Bush era or the frontiers of freedom will continue to recede. But whether they welcome authoritarianism’s return or rue it, the relativists and militarists both believe that democracy and American power must march hand in hand.
Democracy may yet break out in the Arab world less because of the trajectory of American power than the reality that even if American power declines, democracy still has no compelling ideological competitor.
But Tunisia suggests that may not be so. Since the invasion of Iraq, American power in the Middle East has waned. Iran and its allies, Hezbollah and Hamas, have grown more powerful. The oil-producing countries of the Gulf have forged closer ties to China. The Obama administration has turned away from Bush’s muscular democratization rhetoric. And yet, seemingly out of nowhere, in Tunisia, one of the Arab countries where the U.S. wields the least influence, a dictator who ruled for 23 years is ousted in a matter of days by people demanding liberty.
The lesson is that even in a post-American world, democracy has legs. The Middle East has vast populations of young, often educated, people with no prospect of a productive, dignified life. After the 9/11 attacks, many American commentators assumed they would turn to jihadist Islam, and a few have. But while al Qaeda gives young Arabs a chance to lash out at brutal, corrupt regimes and their American sponsors, its vision of society holds little appeal to populations that mostly yearn for East Asian-style economic opportunity, not Taliban-style primitivism. That kind of economic opportunity is possible under authoritarian rule, as China shows. But the claim that authoritarianism can bring economic dynamism isn’t likely to impress young Tunisians, Egyptians, or Syrians, given that their rulers have been trying dictatorship for decades now, and it has brought economic rot.
The U.S. is not suddenly irrelevant in the Middle East. American power still undergirds the ruling clans in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and some smaller Gulf states. U.S. power bolsters Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Saad Hariri against Hezbollah in Lebanon. But the divide between America’s allies and its adversaries in the Middle East is not mostly about democracy, and as much as neoconservatives bash Obama, it wasn’t under George W. Bush either. The reason democracy may yet break out in the Arab world has less to do with the trajectory of American power than with the reality that even if American power declines, democracy still has no compelling ideological competitor. Jihadist Islam can’t answer people’s desire for economic progress. Chinese-style authoritarian capitalism isn’t something most authoritarian regimes can import, certainly not in the Middle East. In other words, it’s too early to count Fukuyama and the optimists out. It’s a good thing for the U.S. government to want democracy in the Middle East. But the important thing is that young Arabs want it even more.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.