To Describe an Elephant

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

There has been a ton of commentary, both new and newly vindicated, on the sweeping changes occurring in the Middle East of late. This post will point to all the biggies I encountered, and will attempt to follow their common thread. The parallels between these many accounts of what appears to be a momentous event in history and the fable of the group of blind men trying to describe an elephant by touching parts of it are too great to ignore. (This is hardly meant as an insult to any of these men: Historians will be writing books on this for decades.) This is simply too great an event to for me let go without some kind of annotated list of commentary. Readers are encouraged to point to others I may have missed in the comment section.

In Patriotism and Preferences by (and via) Glenn Reynolds, the "suddenness" of the fall of a totalitarian state is addressed in terms of a "preference cascade." In short, many people are dissatisfied with a totalitarian regime, but these disaffected aren't aware that enough other people agree with them to make a difference.

This illustrates, in a mild way, the reason why totalitarian regimes collapse so suddenly. ... Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don't realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it - but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.

This works until something breaks the spell, and the discontented realize that their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may seem very sudden to outside observers - or even to the citizens themselves. Claims after the fact that many people who seemed like loyal apparatchiks really loathed the regime are often self-serving, of course. But they're also often true: Even if one loathes the regime, few people have the force of will to stage one-man revolutions, and when preferences are sufficiently falsified, each dissident may feel that he or she is the only one, or at least part of a minority too small to make any difference.

One important point here is that dissatisfaction with a dictator does not a Jeffersonian democrat make. Maybe it's just me, but this reminds me a little of certain Libertarian-like arguments that attempt to claim that the desire for liberty is as uncontroversial as the desire for food or air -- by taking common complaints about our welfare state to mean more than they do. My favorite example of this is an account of some Libertarians marching -- with Communists -- against Reagan. It didn't matter to the former that their reason for disliking Reagan was (or should have been) the opposite one held by the commies: they joined them in common cause anyway! So while we should be happy to see tyranny fall on the one hand, we have to be cognizant of the fact that there will be many competing factions in its aftermath, as we have seen in Iraq, and that some of these could be even worse than what preceded them, should they take power.

Next, we have Wrechard at the Belmont Club discussing what the terrorists might do to change the momentum: attack U.S. soil.

It would not be surprising if the terror masters fell back on this old repertoire by staging attacks directed not only at Middle Eastern targets but at the United States to throw back the threatening psychological wave. The problem is that there is no longer any widespread confidence, even in the places like Lebanon, that terror tactics will prevail. To that extent even the most heinous attacks, like the carbomb which recently killed more than 100 in Iraq, have lost their bite. Psychologically speaking, the greatest contribution of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns is that they have shattered terrorism's myth of invincibility. The terrorists embarked on a maximum effort to dislodge the US from Iraq, employing every weapon of violence, political maneuver and propaganda they could muster and came up much the worse for wear. This lesson has not been lost to public perception and has emboldened dissidents all across the region.

Well, this is a war. We're getting our licks in and they'll get theirs. But I agree. So long as we stick to our guns, the long-range picture for the overthrow of certain regimes is good. Wretchard and Reynolds both grasp important group-psychological aspects of this war. Interestingly, the common theme is that the individual is not alone and powerless against forces like government oppression or terrorism. And an interesting corollary follows, now that I think of it: the former breeds the latter by its very nature. A dictatorship, by depending on the illusion that the proles are powerless, must foster this illusion. In doing so, it creates a population who are predisposed to fear terrorism and, perhaps, to see terrorism as one of the only ways to empowerment.

In The Coming Arab Revolt by Austin Bay (via Belmont Club), we see a bold prediction of current events and the cultural icon upon which terror and tyranny are based: the strongman.

Toppling Saddam also toppled the myth of the "Arab strongman," a point unfortunately missed by critics of the Iraq war. The Arab strongman was a romantic, Superman story of militant rescue and revenge, but it was also a justification for dictatorial rule. The armed strongman would drive the Israelis into the sea. The strongman would restore Arab prestige, at the point of a sword or the blast of a nuclear weapon. But these bloody miracles, permanently scheduled for the near future, required submission to tyranny. To advocate liberty, to promote free trade, to critique the corrupt, to demand a voice in governance -- these acts of weakness undermined the strongman and thus undermined "the Arab cause."

But if this is such a big part of the Arab culture, what will replace it?

In The Arabs' Berlin Wall has crumbled by Mark Steyn (via Belmont Club), we have a nice recapitulation of the head-spinning succession of recent events as well as another piece of the psychological puzzle.

Why is all this happening? Answer: January 30. Don't take my word for it, listen to Walid Jumblatt, big-time Lebanese Druze leader and a man of impeccable anti-American credentials: "I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, eight million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Berlin Wall has fallen."

America dispelled the myth of the strongman, but it was the sight of Iraqis voting that filled in a conceptual blank: if the strongman doesn't have power, who does? This elections showed the Arabs that they, themselves could wield power. This is an important point I'll mention again later.

Both the Belmont Club and TIA Daily point to The Arab Street: A vanquished cliché, by Christopher Hitchens, who notes the passing of a phrase popular with a media that lionizes the likes of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

In retrospect, it's difficult to decide precisely when this annoying expression began to expire, if only from diminishing returns. There was, first, the complete failure of the said "street" to detonate with rage when coalition forces first crossed the border of Iraq, as had been predicted (and one suspects privately hoped) by so many "experts." But one still continued to hear from commentators who conferred street-level potency on passing "insurgents." (I remember being aggressively assured by an interviewer on Al Franken's quasi-comedic Air America that Muqtada Sadr's "Mahdi Army" in Najaf was just the beginning of a new "Tet Offensive.") Mr. Sadr duly got a couple of seats in the recent Iraqi elections. And it was most obviously those elections that discredited the idea of ventriloquizing the Arab or Muslim populace or of conferring axiomatic authenticity on the loudest or hoarsest voice.

What, gentle reader, might the effects be of predicting an explosion of rage in the Arab world should we have the temerity to defend ourselves, or of evoking the Tet Offensive (widely and wrongly believed in America to have been a military defeat ) during a war? Part and parcel of the tyranny-terror machine in the Middle East has been the unwillingness of America to do anything. The animating ideology of our media probably helped maintain this inertia.

The Millennial War Is Clearly a Fight for the Future (via Belmont Club) is another Austin Bay piece that touches on two things that I think are pivotal about America's influence: foreign perceptions of American culture, and what our country needs to do next.

Certainly, examples of American excess and silliness abound, but examples of American success and largesse are even more abundant. Here's the fact at the throat of America's enemies: When the vast majority of Earth's oppressed get a chance to vote with their feet, the destination isn't Baghdad, it's Broadway. Extending political and economic opportunity into the world's hard corners, by curbing the power of corrupt autocracies, should be strategic goals of America's war on terror. It's pragmatic, not grandiose. Squeezing corrupt banks and financial networks (a key Bush administration endeavor) is the starting point. Increased financial transparency and accountability exposes kleptocrats. Eliminating terrorists ultimately reduces the daily fear experienced by political moderates -- men and women who vastly outnumber the extremists but live, literally, under the gun. In the hard corners that harbor terror, moderate voices are silenced by the threat of assassination. These moderates are the "reformationists" in their own lands, the entrepreneurs who can expand wealth and the political activists able to adapt democracy to local conditions. The reformists are America's strategic allies in our counter-terror war. A well-waged counter-terror war will help free them from fear. A well-formed political strategy will encourage them to pursue their liberty.

This Michael Ledeen piece, Revolution: Freedom, our most lethal weapon against tyranny (via TIA Daily) is probably the most comprehensive of these pieces and discusses some of the same points, but he makes the point that we must be unyielding in our efforts to help freedom take root.

Many of the brave people in the suddenly democratic Arab streets are inspired by America, and by George W. Bush himself. It should go without saying that we must support them all, in as many ways as we can. Most of that support will be political — from unwavering support by all our top officials, to support for radio and television stations, and tens of thousands of bloggers, who can provide accurate information about the real state of affairs within the Middle Eastern tyrannies, to financial assistance to workers so that they can go on strike — but some might be military, such as hitting terror camps where the mass murderers of the region are trained. We are, after all, waging war against the terrorists and their masters, as is proven by the daily carnage in Iraq and Israel, and the relentless oppression and murder of democrats in Iran.

The president clearly understands this, but, in one of the most frustrating paradoxes of the moment, this vision is rather more popular among the peoples of the Middle East than among some of our top policymakers. For anyone to suggest to this president at this dramatic moment, that he should offer a reward to Iran for promising not to build atomic bombs, or that we should seek a diplomatic "solution" to Syria's oft-demonstrated role in the terror war against our friends and our soldiers, is a betrayal of his vision and of the Iranian, Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian people. Yet that sort of reactionary thinking is surprisingly widespread, from leading members of congressional committees, from the failed "experts" at State and CIA, and even some on the staff of the National Security Council.

And finally is this piece at the TIA Daily blog. Jack Wakeland shows how the example of America has inspired the people of the world to seek a better life here on earth.

It is an empire unlike any that has ever existed. The empire does not acknowledge its influence by changing the political borders of the world, but by making the old borders irrelevant. The Army has been used to protect it, but the empire does not advance by force. Business and investment have pushed it forward, but the empire's "globalizing" business invasion is always just behind the advancing edge. It is spreading a common language, but English follows the advancing frontier.

The frontier of the American Empire is in the mind of every man and every woman in every country, who wants a better life, here, on this earth. [emphasis added] The best among them look to our nation as proof that it is possible. America is taking over the countries of the world from the inside, one mind at a time.

America is a supernova. As it becomes hollow at its core, here in the United States, the empire expands like a shock wave moving across the surface of the earth. It moves with the speed of the imagination - an imagination captivated by the vision of a people exercising their right to the pursuit of happiness.

This piece ties together all the rest. Without some knowledge of America, even if just from movies, would there have been as many people in the Arab world with a "preference" for something better? Would they have known better was possible or achievable? And with what Martin Lindeskog calls the "Uncle Sam Tour" stopping by and providing real live Iraqis voting as proof, they seem to be happily joining the club.

Mark Steyn cites Glenn Reynolds as saying that "democritization is a process, not an event." This is certainly true, and there will undoubtedly be setbacks in the Middle East. (Recall that Iran turned its back on the West and adopted an Islamic theocracy as its government.) These revolts, as I noted before, do not in themselves imply adoption of the ideas or culture necessary for Jeffersonian democracy. But perhaps in a freer Middle East, the seeds of such ideas can germinate. Our own nation did not spring up overnight in all its perfection. In fact, it is not perfect at all and has never been. We had to fight a civil war to rid ourselves of the scourge of slavery. Today, our freedom is compromised by statist control of the economy and threatened by the gathering threat of theocracy. The fight for freedom never ends. It could be rightly said that freedom itself is a process. But what kind of a process? The fight for freedom is ultimately a battle of ideas. The crucial first ideas have been spread to the Middle East. To name a few: that the strongman is not omnipotent, that the people can overthrow their leaders, and that a happy life on earth is possible. But these are just the beginning, and are not sufficient in and of themselves.

But what we are witnessing here is just that: a beginning.

-- CAV

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