And they may. The Middle East has not been fertile ground for Western style democracies. Time and again, we have seen tyrants arise, even as they promise to be champions of the people. Not long ago, Hosni Mubarak was himself one of these “reformers.”
The difficulty is that the Middle East is not like us. We live in a techno-commercial society, whereas nations in that part of the world cling to an agrarian-military tradition. As a result, democracy is integral to our history, but not theirs.
True, some non-Western nations have in recent years made enormous strides toward democratic institutions. Japan and South Korea immediately come to mind. But these countries have also moved toward techno-commercial institutions. Both have roaring market economies grounded in technological sophistication.
The Middle East is different. Most of it (save Israel) is still grounded in a medieval mindset. Its peoples have neither the skills, the attitudes, nor the economic resources to sustain governments over which they are allowed veto power.
Consequently, when ordinary people rise against oppressive regimes, the outcome is usually the imposition of an equally repressive government. The outstanding contemporary example, of course, is Iran. But this tradition also existed in medieval Europe. Back then, popular insurrections, called Jacqueries, invariably gave way to the re-imposition of aristocratic rule.
The reason was simple. The ordinary people were not organized to rule. However optimistic their hopes, they did not have the staying power to implement these. We may well be witnessing the same sort of deterioration in Iraq. Despite American encouragement — and the horrendous example of Saddam Hussein — Iraqi politicians are by habit intransigent and its average citizens are given to violence when frustrated.
Into this sort of vacuum generally rides the military or the clergy. Either the army takes over and re-imposes order or the clerics do the same and impose a theocracy. Sometimes — as was the case in the Middle Ages — religious and military power is combined in a single source. Then, as occurred in Iran, the repression becomes truly draconian.
So what is to be done? The first step is to realize that our ability to control events is limited. We can encourage democratic elements, as well as provide limited assistance in organizing, but as outsiders with an alien tradition we are liable to spark opposition merely because we are different. From the point of view of the indigenous people, we will appear to be invaders bent on conquest. Moreover, our very successes will remind them of their own failures.
This means that sometimes our only option is to do nothing, while hoping for the best. We can mouth words intended to offend none of the participants and cross our fingers that those who hate us are not provided with an excuse to impose a regime hostile to our interests.
But we can do something more. We can turn to a “containment” policy, much as we did with Stalinist Russia. Our goal then was to protect ourselves by limiting the ability of a potential opponent to harm us. We did not actively attempt to control the Soviet Union, but sought to limit the contagion.
If a similar policy is followed with respect to the Middle East, it is doubtful there will be meaningful reforms for the foreseeable future — by which I mean at least a century. Samuel Huntington was correct in describing this as a clash of civilizations and further implying that civilizations do not change quickly.
If so, our best hope is to become less dependent on foreign oil. If this resource ceases to be a source of wealth for those who hate us, they may sink back into an impotent poverty. And if they do, we may not need to worry about how they choose to govern themselves.
Melvyn L. Fein. Ph.D., is a professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University.