Contagion

When Iranian opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi called for a rally on Monday to support the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, he was put under house arrest according to the BBC. This came as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, urged Egyptians to continue their protests and to "free" themselves and choose their own leaders and their own form of government. It seemed a case of "do as Teheran says and not as you see in Egypt". An Iranian leadership eager to see unrest in other countries lost no time cracking down on its own dissidents for acting exactly on the same impulses they encouraged abroad. CNN rhetorically asks, "Will Iran change heavy-handed tactics against pro-reform protests?" Does a bear visit the woods? For the answer, see the previous paragraph and besides, CNN's own coverage  says:

Iranian authorities on Wednesday warned against any attempt by the opposition movement to hold the rally, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency. It was unclear whether people will take to the streets, anyway.

"We definitely see them as enemies of the revolution and spies, and we will confront them with force," Revolutionary Guard Cmdr. Hossein Hamedani told IRNA.

The probable answer is, "no they are not going to change their heavy handed tactics."

Fidel Castro, who the Huffington Post reported as saying "Hosni Mubarak's fate is sealed" ensured he would not suffer the same end by taking the lesson to heart and arresting journalists and dissidents and throwing them into prisons far worse than the facility operated by the US military in Guantanamo, which is only notorious because it isn't operated by Castro.

Human Rights Watch may say that "Cuba remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent. In 2010 the government continued to enforce political conformity using criminal prosecutions, beatings, harassment, denial of employment, and travel restrictions."  But he's "a man of the people", isn't he?  So to the Wall Street Journal's plaintive musing, "will Cuba be the next Egypt?" one can only answer: are you kidding? Repression works if you are anti-American, but only if you are anti-American.  Yet once the unlimited brutality is allowed, as the Iran has discovered, then what doesn't make you stronger kills you. CNN notes that the Iran's last round of repression, rather than outraging the protesters, has made them gun-shy.

"Surviving the last round [of protests] strengthened the regime's hand," he said. The suppression "put fear in the protesters," he said. ...

"They are crushing anything that moves," Bazzi said.

Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council for Foreign Relations, said one big difference between Iran and Egypt are their economies. Iran has a lot of oil, and it can afford to be "more reactionary and revolutionary."

Meanwhile, the Obama administration will continue to pressure Iran over its nuclear program, human rights and influence with militant organizations that threaten Israel, among other governments.

Bullets work and they work better when you don't listen to the White House. Which ironically means that the President will use diplomatic language in dealing with Teheran, and not the language he used with Mubarak.  What could this mean in the coming weeks?

With unrest spreading according to Sky News, from Algeria to Syria, there can be little doubt that the political contagion over modern communications is real. That contagion can stir up unrest, but the self-organizing over the Internet has not yet reached the stage where it can complete itself.  But the Internet has proved more than adequate at spreading awareness through the Middle East that they have put up with poverty and repression for too long. People are angry but don't know what to do. Not only are whole populations being exposed to rising expectations, but they can talk about it -- on Twitter, Facebook or in Arabic blogs. It's a problem looking for a solution, but who is selling?

Hundreds of millions of people are aspiring to a way of life that only capitalism and some kind of democracy can fulfill.  Neither fundamentalist Islam nor Nasser-style authoritarianism can feed the burgeoning numbers. Capitalism and freedom is the only system which can unleash the productivity which has lain dormant and chained up under centuries of represssion. Yet who will tell them this?

The real difference between the Democracy Agenda of George Bush and the current administration is that GWB in his simplicity had something to sell. He also had the hard-headed practicality to realize  a combination of hard and soft American power would be necessary to sell it. In his naivete, the Bush approach targeted the enemy authoritarian regimes before allied authoritarian regimes probably on the theory that once you've dealt with the their SOBs, you could deal with your SOBs.

President Obama may have a far vaguer product, teeing off the idea that if you take the side of the street then all will be well.  He will do nothing so crass as Always Be Closing. That's beneath him. As unrest sweeps from "Algeria to Syria", the adequacy of President Obama's leadership style in Egypt will be tested against other crises. There may be serious difficulties because the President's main role in Egypt was to take credit for whatever the protesters achieved. This may be described as "encouragement" or "support" by some, but it really resembles the shaman who dons the green cloak in winter and takes credit for the arrival of spring rather than the man who makes things happen.

The balance of probability is that the style of leadership demonstrated in the still-unfinished Egyptian crisis will be overwhelmed if events accelerate in the Middle East. They will be especially overwhelmed if other regimes, both nominally allied or hostile, derive the lesson that it is better to go ugly early than let things slide to the point where the man in the White House can pretend to lead events. Who wants to be the next Mubarak? Probably none of the leaders in the region.

In the coming weeks Egypt will try to find its way forward to a future that only capitalism and democracy can fulfill, a search that may be replicated all across the legion. And look as they will,  no one will sell it to them unless they figure things out for themselves. Meanwhile, Teheran and Damascus will be touting their wares, not because they are any good, but because there's a sucker born every minute. At heart Barack Obama's dilemma and his distinction from the Bush democracy agenda may spring from an unwillingness to see solutions like Cuba or Iran or Syria as unacceptable end states. He may not even see America as the proper end state for America.

If he is very lucky the contagion now rampant will change the tone of the region from old-style authoritarianisms into somewhat more modern authoritarianisms. The "digital revolution" will leave the scenery unchanged, but the lighting will be better. But if he is very unclucky, then the unrest will unfold asymmetrically, in such a way as to ensure the survival of the most brutal. President Obama could see the region rid of good bad guys and left with only the baddest bad guys. With only soft power and media operations, he couldn't really do more than cheer-lead the Egyptian street. Will the same methods handle Assad or Ahmadinejad?

Maybe he thinks it will, or worse he will apply it only where it can succeed, where the regime is not brutal enough to crack down hard.

Debacles often have their origins in a false sense of success. In 1954 the French Colonial Forces beat the Viet Minh soundly at a place called Na San and derived entirely the wrong lesson from it. The battle of Na San, they believed, proved that a fortress supplied entirely by air was capable of surviving against Viet Minh attacks and inflicting crushing losses against the Ho Chi Minh's infantry. Determined to repeat the experiment on a grander scale, they dropped the cream of France's expeditionary force into Dien Bien Phu. History describes how that turned out. Both the regimes in the region and the White House will be coming away with lessons learned from Egypt. Here's hoping they pick the right one: that it is better to sell something you believe in than let things drift and to hope for the best.


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