By William Pfaff

The annual meeting of the Club of Monaco's Institute for Mediterranean Political Studies serendipitously coincided this year with the long-awaited Arab revolutionary awakening, to the disquiet of many Israeli members of the Institute. However, the unrest also inspired passionate attention from them, as well as from the other forty-odd members of the group, all experienced observers of Mediterranean events, and many of them notable actors in recent Middle Eastern developments and conflicts.

A new Middle East, indeed! But not the one that American policymakers expected when the George W. Bush administration launched its riposte to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, launching the "Great War on Terror," which the last few days have made irrelevant.

It was not the terrorists or Islamic radicals that launched this revolution or that are likely to unmake it -- even if they wished, and even if it could be unmade. It could certainly veer onto a destructive course in some places, as in Libya, and it already seems to be lagging behind the expectations of many of its makers, who are likely to intensify if not radicalize their demands if the provisional governments of Tunisia and the Egyptian army allow themselves to be outstripped by events, and if reform is resisted in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Iran.

And indeed, if Israel refuses to change course. While touched by apprehension, some officials display an astounding complacence. A high Israeli political figure replied to my suggestion that American policy towards Israel might change by saying, "We got along before without America, and we can get along without America again." Not all Israelis might be comfortable with that sentiment.

So far this revolution has made its way without western intervention, and it would seem best for it to so continue. The politically and ideologically conditioned American official response in this situation is to search for potential allies to support, hoping they will become the new leaders. Restraint would be a better course, combined with multilateral humanitarian aid in the short run, to cope with the thousands of refugees uprooted by the fighting in Libya, followed by low-key multilateral support sought by the democratic forces that do emerge. The European Union would best lead this because of the residual knowledge and institutional intimacy that still exists between some of the European states and their former colonies. They know better what they are doing and are likely to be regarded locally as sure to eventually go home.

The U.S. is badly compromised by its recent history in the Middle East. A Benghazi political scientist, Abeir Imneina, is quoted in the French press as being hostile to any external intervention. She says local committees, made up of lawyers, magistrates and teachers, are linking up with committees in neighboring communities near Benghazi to cope with the inevitable disorder and prevent a power vacuum despite the lack of civic structure that was part of the Gadhafi regime's systematic hostility to any popular political manifestation. She says that Americans in particular should stay away because, if they come, "they won't leave, and Benghazi will become Iraq."

She hasn't heard the latest news, which is that Americans are getting fed up with foreign wars. The mood in Washington is shifting towards ending the global adventurism of the past decade that has killed hundreds of thousands of bystanders as well as what the Obama government identifies as "violent extremists," while also provoking further violent extremism.

Lost in the news has been an extremely significant speech on Friday, February 25, by departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Survivor of the Bush administration and often criticized as a careerist, Gates actually is ending his government career as one of the last -- or perhaps it is as one of the first -- sane men in a Washington gone mad during the past decade.

Speaking to the cadet corps of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., he told them that in their military careers they are unlikely to serve in another large ground war like those in Afghanistan, Iraq and, before that, Vietnam -- "invading, pacifying and administering a large third-world country." The odds on that are low, he said.

"In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it." Such was the reply that MacArthur gave President John F. Kennedy when asked if the U.S. should send combat troops to Vietnam. Kennedy did not do so, so long as he was alive. President Lyndon Johnson was the one who did, under immense pressure from Congress and from Kennedy's ideologically intoxicated former advisers.

Implicitly, Gates was answering two questions that every politically conscious high official in the G.W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations has been afraid to answer, or has suppressed within him- or herself the true answer: Why did we attack Iraq? Why are we in Afghanistan?

The answers are that we acted to gratify the ego of one president and defend the career interests of another, to serve venal and sectarian interests, and to advance promotions in what has become a militarist professional army. God may forgive us. History -- and the Iraqis and Afghans -- may not.


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