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.