The site of revolt in Tunisia and Egypt brings to mind the nation-building romantic dreams of the so-called NeoCons. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought giddy celebration: America was the definitive winner in the decades long battle between oppression and freedom. People dreamed of exporting our form of democracy to the rest of the world. In this romantic view, people around the world were poised to embrace democracy and free-market enterprise. This was the new enlightenment.
In typical super power style, our leaders tried to export democracy through military engagement. We destabilized dictatorships in order to open a window of opportunity for the indigenous masses to rise up and throw off their oppressors. Of course, there was a less noble aspect to these missions. We wanted to shape this new society to be friendly to and grateful for the U.S.
As we have learned during the past two decades, such romantic dreams have not ended with everyone living happily ever after. Somehow, we found we could not light the spark of a grassroots revolution through our outside intervention.
Now we see an echo of the sort of uprisings of which we have dreamed. They aren’t happening in the places we would hope. We would rejoice at the people of Iran revolting, but it’s happening instead in Egypt. Egypt has long been our ally. Hosni Mubarak has been an ally and a leader for many good things in the region. He was an important player in our efforts at Mideast peace. We can delight in the potential of Egyptians risings up against those who have oppressed them. We can hope for a happy democratic ending, but it seems just as likely that Egypt may end up in the grips of a fundamentalist Islamic regime.
True revolution is not as easy to engineer as we would sometimes like to think. Our position of power in the world is not as great as we would sometimes like to imagine. Economic interests have always driven our foreign policy. We tell ourselves that our interests in foreign affairs are more noble than mere economics. We spend much time wrestling for control of what’s going on in the world. Perhaps it is time for us to acknowledge the limits of our power and begin to think about how we should be encouraging freedom in the rest of the world as a not-so super power.