Gideon Rose on Middle East Uprisings

Syrians hold candels during a sit-in outside the Egyptian embassy in Damascus on January 29, 2011. Placards read: 'Yes to Freedom, Mubarak Go Away, No to Mubarak, Mubarak Leave'.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Gideon Rose editor of Foreign Affairs Magazine and author of How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle talks about the military conflict in Libya and other news from the Middle East.

Libya takes a backseat today to news out of Syria, where children’s graffiti sparked a civilian massacre; Jordan, where the March 24th movement is camped out in a main square to push for democracy; and Egypt, where secular youth who helped lead the revolt are being marginalized by a coalition of the military and the Egyptian Brotherhood, and demonstrations have been outlawed. Unrest continues as well in Bahrain, Yemen, and Oman.

Rose said there is tension in Egypt between forces looking to create a multi-party democracy and those who want an army-Islamic coalition state, but he said perspective is needed. 

Up until several months ago... the Arab Middle East was filled with a whole variety of very nasty regimes that weren’t particularly pleasant for the people living under them, but in many cases allowed oil and other resources to flow out to the outside world. Some of these regimes were American clients and friends, some were American enemies, but most were nasty, one way or the other. Suddenly..  there are these popular revolutions popping up… This is essentially an anti-authoritarian, anti-sclerosis, anti-tyranny uprising against all the regimes that are illegitimate and essentially non-functional for the vast majority of their population.  It’s not about us, it’s about the local conditions and the bad leadership they’ve been getting.

Up until recently, Rose said, U.S. policy had been that the U.S. likes freedom and democracy but finds it difficult to promote in other countries. 

As John Quincy Adams said, ‘We are the well-wishers of freedom and democracy everywhere, but the supporters only of our own.'"

Especially after U.S. involvement in Iraq, if intervention now appeared to be about the United States it might be more unpopular. For the most part the United States has tried to let these overthrows happen without becoming involved and worked with whichever government was in power. 

Our policy pretty much was, if you can topple your own regime, we’ll recognize you. But if you can’t, then we will stick with the dictator.

The administration had to walk a delicate line to try to please those who felt that more should have been done during the Egypt uprisings, as well as both neo-conservative and neo-liberal voices within the US who felt that the country has an obligation to intervene. 

With Libya, we actually changed our policy last week... We said, even though it looks like this is going to go backwards and repression is going to work, we’re going to put in a Brezhnev doctrine – the freedom forces don’t go backwards.

There was a worry that if another country did not intervene and the repression won, it could not only halt the momentum of the uprisings in the Arab world, but also send a message to other dictators that brutal repression was the best solution for this sort of revolt. Rose, however, does not accept that as an excuse for the U.S. intervention. 

I don’t really think that is a justification for entering an open-ended military engagement in which you have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next. You don’t really want to take on Libya as a ward of the international community in perpetuity.

He finds it naive to assume that the United States is in favor of reform movements throughout the region. American policy in countries more important to U.S. strategic needs for oil, he said, tends to be opposed to a popular uprising and government overthrow.  

We could let the popular demonstrations go forward in countries that weren’t strategically significant, like [in] North Africa, particularly Tunisia… or in the ones where we don’t like the governments … But if Saudi ever started to see an actual major uprising, my prediction would be, as morally heinous as it sounds, that the Saudi government would put it down with force, and the U.S. government would look the other way while the did so.

In Jordan, a U.S. ally with a constitutional monarchy with a relatively popular king, there are uprisings too. Rose doesn’t expect they will turn violent.  

Protests in Jordan are nothing new, frankly. There are often a lot of them. And there is enough of a space there where there is not sort of suppressed volatility that is coming out in force in a way that’s going to shake the entire structure… I personally don’t think the Jordanian regime is in major trouble right now.

One of the lessons Rose said the United States should draw from the uprisings is that "we are on the right side of history". 

A regime that suppresses its people, that denies them jobs, that denies them functional governments, are indeed going to fail in the long run. So if I’m China, I’m looking at is and thinking oh my god, I may profit from it in the short term [while] the U.S. is embroiled, but this is not going to good for me because my people are eventually going to be next.

Rose doesn’t think that the reports of pushiness on the part of religious conservatives are necessarily a sign of dark times ahead. 

Democracy is messy and it takes a long time. In the west no one ever went from tyranny to democracy in one easy step… France started it’s Dem transition in 1789 and didn’t finish it… until the mid twentieth century… We shouldn’t expect some of these countries to do it in a matter of months or even a matter of years.

Rose called Syria an interesting case.  While some have staked their hopes on the President Bashar Al-Assad who is younger and Western educated, as possibly breaking from the old-world customs of his father and allowing a democracy. Rose finds those generational hopes unreliable, pointing to Saddam Hussein’s sons and Kim Jong Il’s son.  

As for the region as a whole, Rose expressed concern that without a well-defined target the United States may end up facing the prospect of an unending war in Libya. 

Basically we didn’t think through what we want to see and that’s what we need to do now. What do you want to see in Libya at the end of the day?