Obama's Arab Spring: Been There, Done That, Doesn't Work

Obama's Arab Spring:  Been There, Done That, Doesn't Work

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With the Arab Spring promising to turn into a long, hot summer, this week President Obama went to the State Department to preach to the choir about his will to bring democracy, peace and prosperity to Arab countries across North Africa and in the Middle East.

The reality is, however, that while the American-backed instant revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have left both countries in a limbo, they have violently stalled in Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.

President Obama’s plan is to get rid of autocratic rulers as a prelude to establishing democracies and stimulating economies through entrepreneurship, trade, debt forgiveness and cash grants. Yet, as the tiger economies of the Far East so amply demonstrate—and as counterintuitive as it is to the progressive spirit—trying to establish democracies to achieve prosperity is like putting the cart before the horse.

Countries such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore were not worried one whit about “democracy” when they resolved to become engines of prosperity as they followed Japan’s model of quick recovery in the wake of the Second World War. In South Korea, in fact, productivity came at the expense of brutalizing factory workers.

As Shahid Yusuf and Kaoru Nabeshima note in their book on the subject, Tiger Economies Under Threat, “they hitched their future performance to industrialization, as Japan had done, with light manufacturing as the initial stepping stone; all relied largely on raising rates of domestic savings to finance development; and all came to depend on domestic investment and export demand, mainly from the United States, to buttress growth.”

More to the point, China’s miraculous economic turnaround, which dwarfs all others, was instituted by a cadre of Maoist dictators who adopted a merciless, slave-driving capitalism when Deng Xiaoping, former leader of the Communist Party of China, famously said, “It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”

The thinking in China was, and remains, that only a well-educated, well-fed and well-employed people can participate in government by consensus.

Paternalistic as this perspective may be, it is vindicated by the disastrous fallout from Iran’s 1979 uprising. The Iranian people staged a genuine Middle Eastern revolution from within, marching seven-million strong with great hopes for the future, sharing in an extraordinarily populist spirit that foresaw peace and plenty for all.

The revolution’s guiding light, a cleric named Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, initially expressed no desire for political leadership, promising to keep the clergy out of politics and to make hijab optional for women. Andrew Young, then-President Carter’s U.N. ambassador, even called him “some kind of a saint.”

Yet the Ayatollah’s 1979 return to Iran from exile was quickly followed by deadly in-fighting within Islamic factions for power and oil money in an atmosphere that left no place for planning that would expand the country’s economic base beyond fossil fuel exports. Allegedly to put an end to the chaos, velayat faqih (rule by religious leaders) was firmly institutionalized as the foundation of a government that would be led by clerics.

Three decades later, Iran continues to enjoy a fraction of the prosperity that its natural and human resources would allow. Branded as a pariah state, it has a brain-drain rate of 25 percent, by far the highest in the world, at an annual expense of $40 billion to the country.

Indeed, if tomorrow all the Arab heads of state, whose ouster the Obama administration so keenly desires, obediently leave, chances are that they will be replaced by another echelon of leaders -- just as elitist -- in lands where ossified traditions of patriarchy, careerism and tribal allegiance concentrate power in the hands of a few. President Obama’s entrepreneurs would not be able to prosper unless they belong to a tight, small, nepotistic circle.

Reprehensible as it may sound, more workable would be a carrot-and-carrot strategy, letting this generation of leaders live out their lives in power while promising them wealth beyond their wildest imagination if they would open up their countries to industry and trade.

“Let some people get rich first,” said Deng Xiaoping, whose mistrust of human behavior rivals that of the Founding Fathers. As in the tiger economies, wealth in the industrialized Islamic countries would first go to the top before working its way down to the urban and rural poor.

Yet this is a sunny scenario when it comes to most Arab nations, where a deeply ingrained sense of honor and shame prevents the cohesion that the factory floor requires. “Shame-honor ranking effectively prohibits the development of wider, more socialized types of human relationships. Status considerations of the kind are impervious to Western concepts of contractual relationships,” writes David Pryce-Jones in “The Closed Circle, An Interpretation of the Arabs.”

Pryce-Jones can be easily regarded as a supremist, yet he touches upon an indisputable reality of the region.

Perhaps all of it would work, if the Obama administration would appease the detestable tyrants instead of trying to oust them, if the administration would invigorate entrepreneurs who now see no alternative to street peddling, and if it would discover the elixir to make factory work honorable in the Arab eye. These big ifs should send Washington’s architects of the Arab Spring back to the drawing board.