Democratic awakening in Arab states not certain 

Readers of tea leaves, tarot cards and goat entrails might be able to predict the future. But prognostication is a skill few journalists, politicians, diplomats or intelligence officials have demonstrated consistently over time. So while it’s clear the Muslim world is in the throes of a major transformation, let’s not pretend we know how this story ends.

It’s possible we’re seeing an Arab spring, a democratic awakening — uprisings that will bring freedom to societies that have known only oppression. But it’s equally possible that one form of oppression will simply replace another. Will we see in the Middle East a repeat of what happened in Eastern Europe in 1989 or what happened in Iran in 1979?

It’s comforting to believe there is a “right side to history.” But if history demonstrates anything, it is that history has no preferences. History includes wars and interludes of peace, dark ages and enlightenments, cities rising and cities razed. Sometimes history marches from one age to the next. More often, it stumbles.

Though the future cannot be predicted, its course might be altered. Nazis, Fascists and Japanese militarists might have achieved world domination had Winston Churchill not replaced Neville Chamberlain as Britain’s prime minister in 1940. Were it not for Harry Truman, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, communism could have become the dominant global ideology by the end of the 20th century.

Instead, in 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. Many experts and great minds concluded there would be no more consequential ideological struggles — much less wars based on anything as irrelevant (to them) as theology. An “international community” had been created. Should a dispute arise, a shared commitment to dialogue and compromise would bring “conflict resolution.” Was that not self-evidently preferable to bloodshed?

Then, exactly 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a small band of self-proclaimed jihadis hijacked passenger planes and flew them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.

Much of what has happened in the decade since then would have been hard to predict. For example: al-Qaida is now producing an on-line magazine called Inspire, which recently featured an article explaining “How to Make a Bomb in Mom’s Kitchen.” Al-Qaida also produces Al-Shamikha, a magazine for women, offering advice on “marrying mujahideen” — Muslim warriors.

Among those who consider themselves mujahideen: the Palestinians who killed an Israeli mother, father and three children in their home, decapitating a 3-month-old baby girl. The rulers of Iran also see themselves as holy warriors. Every day they torture and execute dissidents. For years, they have facilitated the killing of Americans in both Iraq and Afghanistan while working hard to acquire nuclear weapons. In response, President Barack Obama has attempted to engage them, to open up a dialogue in which reasonable compromises would be offered.

This policy has yielded no results. By contrast, economic sanctions have at least managed to focus the attention of Iran’s rulers even though those sanctions have yet to be seriously enforced. The lessons here are not hard to grasp. Yet few journalists, politicians, diplomats or intelligence officials seem to have grasped them. On the contrary, the White House is now reportedly considering an attempt to “engage” both the Taliban and Hezbollah, Iran’s overseas terrorist proxy.

Fortune tellers might see the future clearly. I’m dubious that most experts and great minds can, least of all those who don’t grasp that engaging terrorists and tyrants is not a bold new policy, but only the repetition of an old failed policy.

By contrast, engaging the opponents of the terrorists and tyrants would indeed be original.

Clifford D. May is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

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Clifford D. May

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