Egypt: A Teachable Moment in World History
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 4, 2013
What has just happened in Egypt is an amazing story and its meaning for the region is earthshaking. The apparent tidal wave of advance for revolutionary Islamism has been flicked aside by the courage of millions of Egyptians, but -- let’s remember -- it would have been futile if the army had not taken their side. And it is worth remembering that on this spot 150 years ago to the day, another such great battle ended in the preservation of the United States.
There are many lessons in this, and here is a brief discussion. A cautionary note: We are far from out of the woods yet.
But before discussing that, it is positively important to take some I-told-you-so’s. I-told-you-so’s are valuable because they tell you whom to listen to and whom not to heed. They also reveal the real forces at work so that in the future we can interpret things correctly. Understanding history and political events is not some matter of taking things in a disconnected way, as if things just happen. We must employ these discoveries to develop a coherent analysis. Or, to put it in one sentence: why do things happen?
Let me mention, however, two important points which better be understood if Western civilization is to survive and flourish, and other societies are to advance. What has just happened in Egypt is truly a teachable moment and that should not be wasted by being lost in details.
First, not everything that exists in the imagination can be achieved. Wishful thinking is no guide to policy. Just because you desire something does not mean it will or can be achieved. The whole purpose of human logic is to estimate the odds and chances.
A three-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict in which everyone lives in peace and harmony is desirable. It isn’t going to be achieved, at least for many decades. A democratic Middle East in which moderation rules over the region isn’t going to happen for a long time.
Karl Marx referred to revolutionaries as “heaven-stormers,” but gravity and human nature do not concede such possibilities of instant transformation. It doesn’t end well, as the Communist, fascist, Arab nationalist, and Third World radicalism stories show over and over.
The grasp cannot exceed the reach. Social conditions, history, ideas, and experiences set limits and directions in human history. That doesn’t mean nothing good can happen, but it is going to happen according to a serious estimate of reality. Of course, there are also accidents and places where things can turn out differently on the decision made by an individual.
Fundamental transformation is not an easy game.
There are certain times that are unique, of course, like, as some sources say, the losing of a horseshoe nail which unhorsed King Richard III. This was a turning point in English history at the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22,1485. The fact that an arrow hit King Harold II of England in the eye at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066, meant that the fate of England was altered from a Germanic to a French/Latin civilization.
The existence of great leaders -- or terrible ones -- can change the course of events, too. But why does a given leader, idea, or movement appeal to large numbers of people at one time?
Second, though, within limits change of a positive nature is possible. That’s why one has to experiment and try. On these decisions and deeds many lives depend. The decision of American colonists to take on the strongest power in the world, Britain, in 1776 and that of Israeli leaders to declare independence in 1948 were risky ventures. Yet those involved realized that the attempt was not beyond the possibility of success.
But, again, you have to understand, with unflinching realism, the problems and the risks involved. This judgment is not a matter of ideology, of set and predetermined and unwavering blind belief. At a certain point, ideology gets in the way.