Friday, February 25, 2011

More on revolutionary "contagion"

Being a terminal news junkie, I get excited about historical dramas being played out in real time. Heck, I have a major weakness for Hegelian Grand Theories about history - even though a big part of me suspects that successfully muddling through is what drives most of what we think of as History.

So I'm willing to entertain the idea that we're seeing some new upsurge of revolutionary contagion, or activist contagion, or democratic contagion, or whatever you want to call it.

But I can't help but think that Tom Engelhardt is letting his imagination get away with him in All-American Decline in a New World: Wars, Vampires, Burned Children, and Indelicate Imbalances Tom Dispatch 02/24/2011, when he writes:

But here’s the truth of it: you have to strain to fit this Middle Eastern moment into any previous paradigm, even as -- from Wisconsin to China -- it already threatens to break out of the Arab world and spread like a fever across the planet. Never in memory have so many unjust or simply despicable rulers felt quite so nervous -- or possibly quite so helpless (despite being armed to the teeth) -- in the presence of unarmed humanity. And there has to be joy and hope in that alone. [my emphasis]
The protests movements in Tunisia and Egypt look at me from what I know about them to be an awful lot like what Joschka Fischer called "revolution by implosion" in the former Warsaw Pact countries in Europe. But whether they result in a genuinely democratic trend remains to be seen, or rather to be accomplished by Tunisians and Egyptians.


Gaddafi's Libyan regime seems to be going the same direction. But it may not be so implosion-ready as Mubarak's government in Egypt was. Libya could still turn out to be more "Algeria" (civil war in the 1990s) than "Egypt".

Stephen Walt recently illustrated why you don't see him on TV in the company of Serious People like George Will and Tom "Suck.On.This." Friedman: Walt actually uses his brain, and actually takes some responsibility when he turns out to be wrong in his predictions. He was skeptical of the probabilities of "revolutionary contagion" in connection with the Tunisian unrest. He assesses why his expectations were wrong in that case in What I got wrong about the Arab revolutions and why I'm not losing sleep over it Foreign Policy 02/23/2011:

My post on why the revolution in Tunisia would not spread. To say my prediction was wrong is an understatement, and some of the usual critics have seized on this opportunity to take a shot or two. Fair enough ...

... I still think my reasons for being skeptical about the possibility of contagion were cogent, even if my forecast was clearly wrong in this instance. Large-scale protests are hardly a rare occurrence in many parts of the world, but the vast majority of them do not lead governments to fall. And when a government is toppled, most of the time this does not lead to similar upheavals elsewhere, and certainly not within a few days or weeks. My original prediction was off the mark, but it would have been correct in most cases. [my emphasis]
His estimation of why he was off the mark, with particular reference to Egypt, involves: the intensity of current resentment; the level of anti-government organization; the interaction of new media (Alajzeera) and communication technologies (Facebook, Twitter); the surprising weakness of the regimes in response to protest (the implosion effect); and, "the sense of common identification and cultural resonance that made events in one Arab country significant for many people in others."

There's nothing especially exotic about the latter point, which he expands by saying, "For Arabs, the fact that the initial spark was struck in Tunisia made it far more significant than a similar event in Bolivia or Burma would have been." He doesn't mention language, but the fact that the events in Tunisia were being played out in Arabic, combined with Aljazeera's now-established popularity and reach, surely had an effect. Language alone means that Americans are likely to find political events in Britain, Ireland or Canada to have more resonance than those in Argentina or Bulgaria. (To the extent that Americans take the foreign news seriously at all.)

Tom Engelhardt's thoughts in his article are worth reading, despite the somewhat melodramatic tone of this particular column. But they should be taken more as an example of using the events in the Middle East as a way or rethinking how Washington policymakers process information affecting key aspects of foreign policy. He has an especially good point that recent events should inspire some humility in Washington among both parties about the limits of American power. And provide some caution about the dangers of arrogance in assuming we understand political events in the Middle East perfectly well. One aspect of the latter concern is whether we have enough serious Arabists in the State Department and the intelligence services to provide the kind of information that should be informing our current foreign policies.

Meanwhile, as Engelhardt reminds us, we are fighting a real campaign against revolutionary insurgents in Afghanistan, now lead by our Savior-General David Petraeus. It would be a major advance in democracy and decency if the public were to suddenly lose all confidence in the nightmarish propaganda being used to justify that war:

... on February 19th, just as all hell was breaking loose in Bahrain and Libya, the general visited the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul and, in dismissing Afghan claims that recent American air raids in the country’s northeast had killed scores of civilians, including children, he made a comment that shocked President Hamid Karzai’s aides. We don’t have it verbatim, but the Washington Post reports that, according to "participants," Petraeus suggested "Afghans caught up in a coalition attack in northeastern Afghanistan might have burned their own children to exaggerate claims of civilian casualties."

One Afghan at the meeting responded: "I was dizzy. My head was spinning. This was shocking. Would any father do this to his children? This is really absurd."

In the American echo-chamber, the general's comments may sound, if not reasonable, then understandably exuberant and emphatic: We’ve got the enemy by the throat! We didn’t create Afghan casualties; they did it to themselves! Elsewhere, they surely sound obtusely tone deaf or simply vampiric, evidence that those inside the echo chamber have no sense of how they look in a shape-shifting world.
This recalls for me that segregationists in the Deep South in the early 1960s would try to excuse arson attacks by the Ku Klux Klan or similar Christian terrorist groups by saying some civil rights worker set the fire to make the Klan look bad. This kind of alibi isn't serious. It's an expression of complete contempt for anyone criticizing the actual perpetrators. In this case, our Savior-General Petraeus is running a counterinsurgency campaign that inevitably produces large numbers of civilian casualties.

Engelhardt also discusses the important case of Raymond Davis, a CIA employee who murdered two people in Pakistan and has become the subject of a dispute between Pakistan and the US, because the Obama Administration doesn't think the Pakistani government should complain where Americans murder their citizens on the streets of Lahore.

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