In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof reassures us: “Don’t buy into the pernicious whisper campaign from dictators that a more democratic Middle East will be fundamentalist, anti-American or anti-women.”
Well, it’s true that kings and dictators will say anything to convince us that they’re indispensable. And they’ll always insist that without them, what follows will be chaos. It’s been said before: “Après moi, le deluge.”
But here Kristof is wrong. What follows in the Middle East, especially if the regimes in the Persian Gulf start to fall, is almost guaranteed to be more “fundamentalist, anti-American or anti-women.” What’s happening the region is like pulling the tab on a shaken beer bottle. For many decades, resentment has built up against the United States, against Israel, against reactionary potentates who’ve made common cause with Washington since the cold war. The veto last Friday by the United States at the UN Security Council, blocking a resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, will only inflame that anti-Americanism further.
So far, few of the protests have taken on overt anti-Americanism as a slogan, though anti-US sentiments have been seen virtually everywhere, in the background, from Tunisia to Bahrain. But to the extent that the wave of revolts succeeds in establishing something like democracy, or close to it, it can only unleash the latent views that have been expressed in poll after poll in that area for decades. Despite President Obama’s June 2009, speech that sought to rebuild ties with the Muslim world, populations from Pakistan to Turkey to Egypt have expressed bitter anger and opposition to the United States.
In addition, although the revolts spreading across the region aren’t primarily organized by or to the benefit of the Muslim Brotherhood and parallel reactionary movements such as Tunisia’s Islamist bloc or Bahrain’s religious Shiites, each of these movements is likely to gain traction as a result. Their influence is not likely to be pro-American, nor are these movements likely to make women happy—even though many reactionary and ultra-conservative women support the Brotherhood and similar groups. (Already, in Tunisia, women are expressing well-founded worry about the rise of Islamists.)
That’s why the Obama administration has been so clumsy in its response, cheering protesters in Iran, cautiously welcoming them in Bahrain (while urging restraint on the king), and sending Admiral Mike Mullen on a tour of America’s real estate holdings in the gulf this week. (He’s visiting Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar and possibly Bahrain.)