»  National Review Online

June 14th, 2002

  It's All America's Fault


If you write things in public about the Middle East, you get a lot of reader responses. After a while you start to spot trends in these responses, trends that are very suggestive about how people think and feel on large subjects.

When I myself write about the Middle East, I generally pause somewhere along the line to point out that, while individual Arabs are neither better nor worse, in the generality, than individual Englishmen, Americans or Hungarians, Arab society has never got the hang of rational politics, and shows no signs of doing so. Hence every one of the Arab countries is either an obscurantist theocracy or else a secular "people's republic" under the thumb of cynical gangsters.

There's a response that I get rather often from Arab readers to this line of talk. It goes more or less as follows: "What do you expect? Of course the Arab world is politically backward. You Americans installed those regimes! You maintain them! The people of Saudi Arabia etc. would love to get rid of their horrid despotic rulers, but America won't let them! If Saudis tried to overthrow their monarchy and establish a popular government, the U.S.A. would move in to stop it! It's all America's fault!"

The first thing to be said about this argument is that a lot of intelligent-sounding Arabs (and Pakistanis, and assorted others) believe it — I get half a dozen e-mails a week along these lines. The second thing to be said is that, taken as a thesis in political science, it is dog poop.

It is, as a matter of fact, the case that democracy in the Arab world is probably not in the interests of the U.S. There are strong reasons to believe that any Arab democracy would swiftly degenerate into fascism and that Arab rulers, though certainly odious, are, on the whole, less hostile to the U.S. and our interests than are the Arab people at large — certainly less than the politically organized opposition in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, even possibly Iraq. Palestine, too: The current unpopularity of Yasser Arafat among his people, for example, seems to arise from a perception that he is not anti-semitic and anti-American enough to please them.

It is none the less true that a determined attempt by the people of any Middle Eastern nation to overthrow a pro-American regime would certainly succeed. The name "Shah of Iran" mean anything? When a nation reaches a revolutionary point, there is very little that any outside power can do to change the course of events, unless, like Stalin in post-WW2 Europe, or the Romans in 1st-century Palestine, the power is exceptionally ruthless. Which, of course, for better or worse, the U.S. is not. Revolution — and reform, too, which is an entirely different thing — rises up from the people. It can't be imposed, nor even much managed, by outsiders, except in very special circumstances like those of postwar Japan. If the people of Syria or Pakistan were determined to have constitutional government, there is nothing the U.S. or anyone else could do to deny them it. Contrariwise, if they are not determined to have it, nobody can give it to them, certainly not us.

Why, then, do so many people seem to believe that "It's all America's fault!" I think there are a couple of things going on here.

One of those things is that we are the Daddy nation: big, strong, rich and dominant. A lot of the world is in the same relation to the U.S. as a difficult teenager is to his father. It's not just our size, our wealth, or our strength that drives them crazy; it's our very existence that can barely be tolerated, and the knowing how much they still depend on us. I am an autonomous being! I have a will of my own! I have seen the future — I am PART OF the future — and you dare to stand in my way?!?! In the case of the Arab world, this attitude is probably magnified by the often-observed phenomenon of the pampered Arab male adolescent, doted on by his female relatives, all the hopes of the family pinned on him.

Another thing, I think, is that pretty much all of the Arab world is locked in a kind of cargo-cult mentality. Cargo cults came up in the Melanesian islands of the South Pacific during WW2. The peoples of these places saw the Americans and British come in and build airstrips. Then, when the airstrips were built, planes started to arrive, loaded with cargo. The Melanesians deduced, not altogether unreasonably given their state of knowledge, that if they built airstrips, then planes would come to them, too, likewise bringing cargo. They accordingly hacked makeshift runways out of the jungle and built mock-up control towers out of grass and mud. Then they sat and waited for the cargo to arrive.

You get a cargo-cult flavor in a lot of Third World countries. America has skyscrapers. America is rich and strong. Let's build some skyscrapers — then we'll be rich and strong, too! The idea that the wealth and the strength are rooted in customs, arrangements, laws, liberties, traditions, patterns of thought and behavior and association, and that the skyscrapers are an incidental by-product, is not well understood.

The communist world was a lot like that, too — and still is, where it survives. Pyongyang is full of broad sweeping boulevards and grandiose buildings. There is no traffic to use the boulevards, and the people who occupy the buildings, when they bother to show up for work, are ragged and starving. When the boulevards were laid out and the buildings built, though, most people probably believed that prosperity and national strength — the cargo! — would inevitably follow.

Sub-Saharan Africa was a cargo-cult sort of place in the 1960s and 1970s, after the colonial powers left. Every new nation got itself an airline, a university system, a couple of super-highways, a prestige industrial project, a constitution. See, we are just like a European country! Just like America! Surely the cargo will come! Alas, it didn't come. The prestige project has been swallowed up in the bush, grass grows in cracks in the superhighways, the constitution was trashed by President-for-Life Klepto Thuggo, and a rebel army, under the command of General Machete Psycho, is camped in the university library, using the books for cooking fuel.

Living in China in the early 1980s, I used to marvel at all the pointless fakery that went on. They had a "parliament" that never debated anything, "newspapers" with no news, "trials" where nothing was tried, the verdict having been decided in advance. Why do they bother? I wondered. I began to suspect that the answer was: Because America has these things. See how rich, how successful they are! Therefore we must have these things too. Then we shall be rich and successful, like America! (Bertrand Russell, reporting on his visit to Russia in 1920, said that the aim of Lenin and his Bolsheviks was: "To make Russia as industrialized and Yankee as possible.")

In my pessimistic moods, I think that constitutional government is a sort lucky fluke that random peoples stumble on from time to time, once in a millennium perhaps. The English figured it out somehow in the early-modern period, and carried it to their colonies, who improved on it. The Roman Republic had a pretty good shot at it for a while, till the very success of their system made their territories too large for the system to manage. Similarly with the ancient Greeks. A scattered few other places — Western Europe, Japan, India, Taiwan — look as if they have got the right idea. I wouldn't say their grasp on it is always very firm, but at least for few decades their parliaments will debate, their judges judge, their newspapers report news. Most of the world, though, including all of the Arab world, is sunk in political darkness, which is the natural state of mankind. The people of these places know that something is lacking, but they just can't figure out what the heck it is. We built the runways and the conning towers and the hangars — look! Why won't the cargo come?

It must be America's fault.