Middle East

The jasmine lesson: Reform beats revolution

2013-07-31Asia Times

BEIJING - Two years after the start of the wave of jasmine revolution Revolutions in the Middle East, the situation appears to have gone back to where it began. Most countries, starting with Egypt, are reinstating some kind of dictatorship or authoritarian regime, while others that were formerly (or still are) paragons of evil regimes have completely collapsed or are in the throes of low- or high-intensity civil wars, as in Libya or Syria. Moreover, countries like Turkey that were supposed to bring stability to the region have also been contaminated by the spread of revolutions.

All of these countries' populations seemingly were keen to have huge political upheavals to solve their actual lack of economic
direction. The issue in Egypt and Syria was that their own economic and institutional apparatuses were collapsing. The jasmine uprisings didn't stop the collapse or improve the economic situation in any way, but bringing down the old political systems made things worse for the economy and society.

From the vantage point of China, which two years ago was supposed to be touched by the jasmine contagion, the Chinese can say that they have been much better off without a revolution, be it jasmine, orange, red, or blue. (I wrote about this and the tragic epilogue of the jasmine revolution over two years ago - see Lessons from Tahrir to Tiananmen , Asia Times Online, February 17, 2011.) That is, revolutions are not the answer to systemic problems, and conversely, one could say that the people of Egypt, Libya, and Syria might have been much better off if the local regimes had stamped out the revolutions.

If, say, Egypt's former paramount leader Hosni Mubarak had at the same time cracked down on the protests and enacted the necessary economic and political reforms, perhaps the country would be better off now. Of course, the problem, which is the tragedy of the region, is that Mubarak - like Bashar al-Assad in Syria - was just interested in the crackdown without any reform, but ultimately the lesson for China remains. That is, revolutions by themselves are not the solution to the problem, reforms are. And this is even truer when the Chinese look at their own experience. Had Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists managed to crack down on the communists and carry out the necessary reforms in the mainland - as they did in Taiwan, where they landed in 1949 - China could have averted a 30-year depression under Mao.

Yet, the failure of the jasmine revolutions in the Middle East poses for China a bigger question about America's newfound love for revolutions. It is as if the fall of communism has lifted a weight from the shoulders of revolutionary America. During the time of the communist Soviet Union, revolution was tantamount to being pro-Soviet, and thus Americans had to be in favor of crackdowns or counter-revolutions. However, since the fall of the Soviet Union, no other country is eager to push ahead with revolutions of any kind.

The Chinese, despite the communist label on their lapels, are bitterly against any form of agitation that could change the status quo. On the other hand, the Chinese in particular, and Asians in general, having lived under the shadow of communist revolutions for four decades, are appalled and scared of a new revolution that would compromise their way of life and the economic advancements achieved so far.

So what was the purpose of America's support of revolutions in the Middle East? One answer could be that America honestly thought that revolution could improve Egypt's circumstances. In a way, there were reasons to believe this: previous governments were unwilling to move on any kind of reform, even when reforms were bitterly necessary in these countries. Therefore, the only bet was to try for a revolution.

Yet, the failure of these revolutions should now make America think deeply about what strategies can be pushed in a given country to promote reforms without a violent clash or uprising. Also, the jasmine revolutions will leave a lasting legacy in the Middle East. These countries will be in a state of chaos for many years to come. Libya or Syria could be stuck in some form of civil war for a decade. Egypt could lumber on with its dire economic problems and its crippled social and political structures for decades. In this situation, America, dependent on imports of Middle Eastern oil and gas, would once upon a time have been extremely concerned.

Now, with the prospect of becoming energy independent through shale gas over the next four or five years, the chaos of the Middle East becomes a toxic legacy, left to the Chinese, who are growing more dependent on Middle Eastern energy imports. Moreover, with the arrival of shale gas and oil from America, the price of extracting oil and gas from Russia could become dangerously high relative to exports from the Middle East, putting Russia in a bind. If the situation is peaceful in the Middle East, Russian oil may be too expensive to be extracted and exported. Therefore Moscow has an interest in keeping the situation in the Middle East tense, so overall Middle Eastern extraction costs will be high, thus making oil and gas from Russia competitive.

This may all be in the interest of America, since it puts Russian and Chinese interests at odds with one another. But curiously, it could also help bring about a convergence of European and Chinese interests. Europe is also dependent on Middle Eastern oil imports, and it has an interest in keeping prices down. Therefore, objectively, there could be a convergence of policies in China and the European Union to make the Middle East more stable, something that could also contain their mutual neighbor - Russia.

In this situation, which could happen by the time America chooses its next president, what will America do? As we have seen, the strategy of pivoting to Asia is failing (see Abe gets unfortunate vote of confidence , Asia Times Online, July 24, 2013), more than a decade of Bush/Obama policy toward the Middle East is also falling apart (see Spengler's articles on Asia Times Online), and the discovery of shale oil and gas could push America to more isolationist policies. But it is impossible to think that after eight decades of militant American intervention in the world, Washington will decide simply to withdraw.

Yet now more than ever, America should think of what it wants in the world besides being the confused spectator of the Far East's rise. So far, China's cautious approach in its own policies and toward the Middle East, for half a century the battleground of new ideas and foreign policy, has proved more sensible. But this is little consolation for the world, as America is and will be the global leader for many decades to come.

And a confused global leader is extremely dangerous for the leader and everybody else. For China the failure of the leader and the model to follow in development are things that bear little happiness. Without America success, China is more lonely, and is without a model to follow, something very risky for a country still in the middle of time of passage.(2013-07-31 Asia Times)


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