The winds of change are blowing once again — this time in the Middle East. When British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his historic 1960 “Winds of Change” speech in Cape Town about the continent of Africa, he elected to place Britain on the side of history and to hasten decolonization.
Ever the realist, Macmillan recognized that change was coming, and even though its arrival would be disruptive, the best thing for the West would be to be on the right side of it. To imperialist opponents in his own country, and to white South Africans, he warned, “Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”
Likewise, we face a choice now: to be timid or to be bold. How far should we go to encourage and nurture change in the Middle East even when that change won’t necessarily be helpful to our short-term interests, and even when it may result in the overthrow or weakening not only of foes but also of some Gulf regimes that we count as allies?
On the eve of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, I was a senior editor at the Washington Times Corp. and broke with the editorial line by opposing the U.S.-led invasion on the grounds that democracy would likely not take root if imposed by foreign armed intervention. Invading Iraq would strengthen Iran, distract us from the War on Terror and lead us to neglect the already-invaded Afghanistan, I wrote at the time.
I still believe that position was the right one. But the situation in Libya is different, and this time my concern isn’t that we have entered the fray but that we are not going far enough.
What is in the offing in the region is easily as historic as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet Communism. Not everything that comes out of it will be good: the defeat of Communism gave us the blessings of democracy in central Europe and the reuniting of Europe, but it also gave rise to Slobodan Milošević, a series of vicious Yugoslav civil wars and Vladimir Putin.
And the same will be the case in a changing Middle East. Turmoil will be unsettling for our oil-dependent economies. We can’t be sure where this all will end and certainly won’t be able to guarantee the nature of the governments and leaderships that may replace outgoing regimes. Some are likely to be more pro-Western than others; some will be serious about multiparty democracy, while others may pay lip service to it in the same sly and ridiculing way of Putin, with his “managed democracy.”
Election results won’t always be to our liking — as we found in 2006 when Hamas won a decisive majority in the Palestinian parliament.
In Libya, we don’t at this stage fully understand the balance of power within an opposition consisting of secular liberals, Islamists, Muslim Brothers and defectors from Gaddafi’s camp. We do know Al Qaeda attracted many recruits for its terror campaign in Iraq from eastern Libya, the heartland of resistance to Gaddafi. But not all Islamists are the same and it is naïve of us to lump them altogether — the Islamist government of Turkey is no ally of Al Qaeda and the current leadership of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has been respective of secular liberals.
We know also that many of those who have taken to the streets across the Middle East to protest against oil-rich despots and repressive rulers have been the young and educated. They are eager for a dignified future of individual liberty. They have not been chanting Al Qaeda slogans or pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden. Instead they have been calling for freedom and dignity and demanding a greater say in what happens to them.
Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and now even Syria, where 60 percent of the population is under 24 years old. On Friday, in the most serious protests to have been mounted against the al-Assad family in four decades, demonstrators in dozens of cities and towns across the country called for freedom and not jihad.
Back in 1960, Macmillan saw that the tide of national consciousness rising in Africa had its origins in the West: “For its causes are to be found in the achievements of Western civilization, in the pushing forwards of the frontiers of knowledge, the applying of science to the service of human needs, in the expanding of food production, in the speeding and multiplying of the means of communication, and perhaps above all and more than anything else in the spread of education.”
The origins of what is happening now in the Middle East are to be found in the West, too.
That is something President Barack Obama should outline to the American people tonight when he addresses the nation. It is something he should have been saying to U.S. lawmakers even before American planes were launched to enforce the no-fly zone as part of an administration effort to ensure Congress was adequately consulted and supportive.
So what further practical steps should be taken?
First, we shouldn’t be timid. The protesters across the region, as well as the rebels in Libya, are urging us to help — this isn’t change we are imposing but change we are being asked to assist.
That doesn’t mean putting boots on the ground — the Arabs have to win their own freedom for it to take root. It does mean continuing with the expanded no-fly zone and going even further, striking and degrading Libyan government forces. If Gaddafi succeeds in staying, it will chill the Arab Spring and embolden other rulers, such as the al-Assads. It could well encourage the young and frustrated to turn to Al Qaeda and other extreme groups to execute change.
Second, we should be arming the Libyan rebels and making it clear that our mission in Libya is to see the end of Gaddafi and his handing over by the Libyans to the International Criminal Court.
Third, President Obama should be leading and cheerleading more. While it may make sense to hand over command and control of military operations to the Europeans, he should be coaxing and goading them to be bold. The last time the Europeans took the lead was in the Balkans, where they couldn’t agree on what to do and things went from bad to worse.
Lastly, we and the Europeans should be channeling funds rapidly to our democracy and governance and civil society NGOs and hurrying them into the region to train and counsel in Tunisia and Egypt.
This is an historic moment and we need to seize it. A positive outcome is not assured. But if we fail to back protesters and rebels alike, then we risk not only prolonging repression in the Middle East but providing succor to Al Qaeda and the Islamists, who won’t be slow to find ways to benefit.