FREEDOM FROM THOSE
Abu Dhabi, United Arab
Emirates --- “Political man” is a complicated species. Cultural
conditions and history differ widely. Humility in the interpretation
and prediction of human nature is the wisest bet.
The evolving “Arab Spring”,
as the media term it, is viewed through Western eyes as if the
transformation of Ali Baba and the Seven Thieves into Thomas Jefferson
and the International Court of Justice. This is a joke, and an insult
to Arab political man.
Western eyes are often shaded
by ideological or provincial thinking. Other political cultures arise
from different circumstances than the West and shape their thinking
accordingly. Western democratic forms of government transplant only
with dignity and are no cure-all.
The Philippines with a
Western-style democracy has less economic development to show for it
than any number of autocracies. Even in the United States right now,
our sometimes elegant and venerable democracy seems on the verge of
running out of gas. Its theoretical one-man-one-vote inclusiveness
seems mostly notable nowadays for producing brain-dead divisiveness
along partisan lines and thus gridlock.
Arabia’s “Arab Spring” is
especially complicated—and hugely important of course.
Regarding Egypt, almost all
Western observers imagine that ancient civilization as evolving
Western style. But we should wager a different outcome: Yes, people
there are frustrated and angry…. up to a point. But they have not been
through the horrendous experience of people in the former Soviet Union
or even, (closer to home) in Syria, under the cruel and evil thumb of
Egyptians are volatile but
not desperately irrational. They want palpable material progress and
won’t settle for less. But the ousted long-time Egyptian ruler Hosni
Mubarak was no totally evil Assad, much less a devil Stalin. Somewhere
in their hearts Egyptians know this. They simply want choices and a
sense of genuine hope for themselves and their children. What
particular political form allows them to attain that is not as big a
deal to them. They will be flexible on form as long as they get
results in hand.
In Indonesia, the late
Suharto was a dictator, to be sure, but he was no Mussolini. He left
behind a mainly unified country now proceeding to develop at its own
pace and style its own Muslim democracy. It is a potentially thrilling
story. Malaysia is now in street-demonstration turmoil, even as the
economy has been solid. The government’s police-crackdown response has
only made the country less stable. Just because politicians have been
elected more or less democratically – as is the case with incumbent
Prime Minister Najeeb Razzaq – doesn’t make them smart enough to
handle the tough spots of governing. Crackdowns are almost always a
mistake unless they are early, decisive and rare. Machiavelli taught
In neighboring Singapore, Lee
Kuan Yew, now 88, was no “Little Hitler,” as a New York Times
columnist once tarred that country’s exceptional modern founder. And
so when in the recent election Lee’s long-ruling party garnered “only”
60% or so of the total vote, he felt the winds of change blowing in
his face and retired from government for a long-deserved rest. His
country now moves slowly toward a genuine two-party system but don’t
hold your breath and think it will become Switzerland or Sweden next
year. In some sense Singapore will always be Singapore.
A yearning for clone-like
Western-style democracy is not universal. Neither is it wise. Surely
Afghanistan would be better off with an Islamic Lee Kuan Yew than,
say, a Western Jimmy Carter. Democracy fundamentalists who continue to
believe Iraq is good to soon copy the British parliament had better
not get their hopes up. Even if preying Iran decides not to exploit
after the Americans exit, Iraq without some kind of modern Leviathan
might just be ungovernable.
The political tsunami in
Thailand well illustrates the folly of simplistic thinking. The
recent election of the opposition by a powerful 2-1 margin was as much
about what the Thais don’t want as what they do. On the not-wanted
side, the majority said they don’t want military government that
produces little more than ribbons for generals, and they don’t want
more than half the country left out of the inner circle so that the
greedy elite can slurp up all the spoils themselves. If a
parliamentary democracy now headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister
of the incisive but controversial Thaksin Shinawatra, living here in
Dubai, laboring in the shadow of a still-active monarchy, can produce
that change, fine. If not, then further change will come. They might
even rent a Lee Kuan Yew for a time if things don’t get better.
People – from Arab or Thai –
want opportunity and choices. They want better governance, whatever
form it takes; and they want a voice and a measure of participation.
How precisely they get it is less important than that they do.
The point is extremely
simple, even though human beings are not. If democracy provides
progress, that’s what they want. But what they are searching for isn’t
a political ideal but something more down-to earth: a practical and
credible political delivery vehicle. It only stands to reason.