What is our level of ambition in the Middle East?
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Setting aside the questionable wisdom of the United States becoming involved in a rapidly evolving civil war in Libya, the larger, more urgent conversation should be about what the political endgame might look like, both there and in the region as a whole. The pathway from a popular rebellion against dictators to a rudimentarily functioning polyarchy is a narrow one, and in the Arab world made narrower still by decades of political repression and the deliberate destruction of civil society. Plus, the general absence of what might clumsily be called a “usable past,” whereby—in contrast to the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe—there can be no “returning to” but only going forward into uncharted territory. Occasional rhetorical excesses in the U.S. media comparing the popular uprisings in the Middle East to the 1989 democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe are both inappropriate and poignant. There is no pre-war Latvian constitution to start democratic transition; no decades of Polish civil society-building marked by national surges in 1956, 1968, 1970, and finally the 1980 formative experience of the Solidarity movement; no Czechoslovak Charter 77. In short, the Middle Eastern pathway post-dictatorship will most certainly be a transition, but to what? The most difficult questions must be asked now. They are questions about who will participate in this process, about what can facilitate and what can limit the institutionalization of democratic norms, and about what meanders and power plays by forces, both seen and unseen, lie ahead, not just in Libya, but also in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. The people are stirring to throw off dictators and monarchs, and they deserve our full support, but the rebellion is only the beginning—though it is accelerated and amplified by the networked world in which we live. The United States and Europe, and especially the people in the region, need to think about the day after, of how to manage this transition process with full awareness that the risks are great, and the potential consequences of failure even greater. And so, as we watch the Middle Eastern upheaval, the fundamental question is this: What is our level of ambition?
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