Middle East Changes May Defy History

Written on February 15, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Africa, Democracy & Human Rights, Middle East, News

By Julian E. Zelizer

Even the most hardened realist couldn’t help but shed a tear when the news broke that pro-democracy protesters succeeded in ousting the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

For the moment, a peaceful revolution has shaken the status quo in the Middle East. A corrupt government has been brought down by citizens, united by social media, who refused to be intimidated by violence and who insisted on the right to participate in their own political future.

Some skeptics have warned that fundamentalism, not democracy, comes next. They fear that Islamic militants will control the new regime, producing something even worse for Egyptians, and the world. The example they point to is the Iranian revolution in 1979.

To be sure, we don’t know what comes next. The dangers posed by certain organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood are potentially serious, as is the possibility of permanent military rule.

But policymakers should not be blinded by pre-existing assumptions about international relations. For over a decade, American policymakers have been focused on the threat posed by terrorist organizations that are tied to Islamic fundamentalism.

Yet it is important to be careful in how we approach the changes in the Middle East. After all, another lesson of the 1970s is that sometimes U.S. officials are so driven by a certain set of foreign policy ideas that they miss fundamental changes that are occurring in a region.

On November 4, 1979, students and workers stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 diplomats hostage. Although Americans had seen a series of major terrorist incidents in the 1970s, none had hit so close to home and none demanded attention like the hostage crisis. The television networks devoted unprecedented attention to it. ABC launched “The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage,” a show every weeknight after the local news devoted exclusively to the crisis and which later became “Nightline.”

The Iranian situation was one of two crises that confronted the United States that year. Another unfolded on December 27, 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The Soviets had close ties to the Marxist government of Afghanistan, but Islamic fundamentalists had allied with various tribal leaders to fight against the government. The rebellion caused tremendous difficulty for the Soviets, who invaded to re-establish control in this troublesome country on its border.

As the historian David Farber explained in his book, “Taken Hostage,” the Carter administration could only see the Iranian crisis through the lens of the Cold War.

In Iran, the United States was thrown off guard by the nature of the regime that replaced the Shah. American policymakers kept expecting the Iranian people to come to the side of the United States because of fear about the Soviet Union. They were confident that the Iranians would not be willing to support someone like Ayatollah Khomeini for very long; in fact the Islamic regime founded by Khomeini is still in control of Iran. Read more…

*Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter,” published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush’s administration, published by Princeton University Press.

As published in www.cnn.com on January 15, 2011


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