From the Arab world protests to the abstractions of network theory, understanding the new world
Anti-Qaddafi fighters gather at a house outside Bani Wali / Reuters
One of the hardest questions in foreign policy debates today is why the U.S. should support the protest movements across the Middle East and North Africa when we don't know what governments will take the place of current regimes but can be fairly certain that most will be less friendly to U.S. interests than their predecessors. Indeed, if popular revolutions were to sweep genuinely democratic governments into power across the region, it is the Iranian government that would likely become the most pro-American, perhaps followed by a new Libyan government. But even if the Syrian opposition were to succeed tomorrow, at least to the extent that the Egyptian protest movements have succeeded, the resulting government would still likely be quite anti-American, raising the question why then we should be doing what we can to help them succeed.
The immediate answer is that the U.S. and the rest of the West would only be reaping what we have sowed: we have supported governments that have oppressed their people, and justifying it to ourselves in terms of our interests, on the premise that otherwise a radical Islamist wave would sweep everyone under. And of course many of the governments that have been friendly to us have actually deflected popular discontent with their own rule by diverting attention to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and to Israel's backer, the United States. But pointing out that our current predicament has long been foreseeable is no help now. Another argument is that even though we chose our interests in Israeli security, a secure oil supply, and a stable regional order over our interests in terms of living up to our national values and being seen to live up to them, now we must do what we can to show millions of young Arabs that we do in fact mean what we have professed so sincerely, at least some of the time. But it will take years of re-aligning our actions and our words before we are likely to change deeply ingrained perceptions of the United States, years in which new, fragile, and volatile governments in a highly precarious region are going to be closer to Iran, more hostile to Israel, and more determined to define their interests in ways that may conflict with U.S. interests.