By Paul Greenberg

It isn't T.E. Lawrence's revolt in the desert, leading a hodgepodge of Arab tribes across the desert in the Arab revolt against the Turks in the World War, Act I. That was the stuff of which legend was made. And myth.

This time the Arabs are rebelling against their own hodgepodge of kings, dictators, autocrats, demagogues and all of the above. The crumbling old pillars of the region, long rotten from within, are falling one by one. Or at least trembling.

The Arab Revolt of 2011 spreads. And spreads and spreads. And not just among the Arabs. From west to east, from Morocco on the Atlantic to aftershocks in Iran and even a Facebook tremor in far away Cathay, the natives are restless. The spark ignited in Tunisia is starting fires of hope (and fear) across the East -- Near, Middle and Far. And it won't be clear for some time whether this fire will cast more heat or light.

The big surprise is that it should have taken so long in the face of years, decades, centuries of oppression. The stillborn or soon strangled Arab democracies set up after the First World War now stir again, like dry bones coming to life after all these years.

Something tells me Col. Lawrence would approve. Maybe what it took to revive his Arab Revolt was the Arabs themselves rather than another Englishman intoxicated with Arabia Deserta. Maybe what did it this time was another Western intervention -- the Internet and its latest high-speed forums, Twitter and Facebook. Their consequences are as unpredictable as those of Herr Gutenberg's movable type. We live, to quote an old Chinese curse, in interesting times.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for those who long assumed that autocracy was a permanent feature of Arabdom was the revolt's appearance in, of all places, Libya. For years, for decades, Moammar Gadhafi's grip on that country and fiefdom went unquestioned, at least by outsiders. The rule of Libya's erratic dictator/prophet/nutcase was taken to be permanent, his dynastic rule as assured as, well, Hosni Mubarak's hold on Egypt. But the surprises keep coming. What would surprise by now would be the absence of an upheaval in any Arab country. (When will Syria's turn come, if ever?)

This year's Arab Revolt is spreading even into the heart of Islam. A hundred thousand turned out to protest in oil-rich Bahrain. (The informal name of that tiny oildom long ago became Oil Rich Bahrain.) Its king is now freeing some political prisoners in hopes of quelling what may prove an unquellable trend.

At last report, even the guardian of Mecca was heading home. The Saudi king was cutting short his medical recuperation to scurry back to his kingdom lest the fever sweeping Arabdom erupt in its very heart. He's ordered his treasury to disburse millions of dollars to the poor and cancel debts in hopes of appeasing the rising unrest.

Across the Middle East these days, uneasy lies the head that wears the keffiyeh. Now even that vast oilfield called the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia shakes. No wonder the oil markets shake, too.

The Arab Revolt is back, this time with Arab leaders. Or at least a leadership vacuum as the world waits to see what will emerge, or if the new bosses will be just the old bosses with different names. The classic pattern of a modern Western revolution, familiar since the French in 1789, now repeats itself in the East as a series of successive shocks erupting from right to ever more left till it reaches its Thermidor, and the pendulum swings back.

The Arabs now have their Western revolution, too, but where is an Arab Edmund Burke to warn that liberty without order will not be liberty for long, but only a prelude to a new seizure of autocratic rule, this one disguised in democratic slogans. Much the way Bonaparte spoke of liberty, fraternity and equality even while crowning himself emperor.

For the moment all the old, unexamined assumptions about the Middle East are being examined, and found wanting. Man's desire for freedom turns out to be universal. Just as an American president who was often hooted down for his simplifications (George W. Bush) told us only a few short years ago. Now his administration seems another age, even before all its leading figures have finished writing their memoirs.

But the Arabists at the State Department, who failed to foresee this new Arab Revolt, now seem unable to come up with a policy to address it. And the White House follows confused suit. Its spokesmen, including the president, mainly mark time, issuing equal but opposite appeals for democracy and stability, peace and revolution, this or that, all depending on the day's news. Long range for this administration turns out to be maybe 24 hours.

Torn between different responses to this year's Arab Revolt, this country's foreign policy seems paralyzed. No single policy, or even single policymaker, has yet to emerge. As is clear from this administration's reactions to events in Libya -- not a foursquare declaration that the government and people of the United States stand behind the forces of freedom there. Nor a clear declaration that America will support those forces with arms, international sanctions against what's left of the dictator's rule. Instead, a dithering administration proposes to discuss events in Libya at ... the United Nations, that great mausoleum on the East River where good ideas go to die and bad ones hurry to be born.

In place of a foreign policy, Americans get a discussion group. In place of a president, a community organizer. Nothing has dated faster than his Cairo address and general outreach to all the dictatorial forces in the Middle East; now he swirls with the changing times, changing policy on the hour -- much like the regimes, now failed or failing, he once appealed to.

Isn't it time the land of the free and home of the brave joined the Arab Revolt, too? This administration needs to make it clear that this country and its people are on the side of freedom, of an ordered liberty, of the future. Such an unambiguous policy, for all its dangers day to day, or its effect on ever fluctuating oil futures, would serve America's highest ideals. And the Arab world's highest aspirations.


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