Domino Theory is making a sustained comeback. The theory first emerged in the 1950s. The idea was that if a country fell to Communism neighboring countries would be more likely to fall as well. Domino Theory was the reason we became involved in Vietnam. If Vietnam fell to Communism so, too, would Laos and Cambodia and Thailand. The progression of the Soviet menace had to be stopped at all costs.
After the fall of the Wall Domino Theory went out of vogue. It wasn’t until a group of Soviet experts took on substantial national security responsibility in the Bush Administration that Domino Theory came back into style. Condoleezza Rice, a Soviet expert, pushed the theory that an invasion of Iraq would lead to a functioning democracy that would then pressure other countries in the region to democratize. This theory — Reverse Domino Theory, if you like — was the driving force behind the American invasion of Iraq. It wasn’t WMD, it wasn’t Saddam’s despotism. It was an overriding belief that a democratic Arab world would offer America sustained security. This is because democracies don’t fight other democracies.
The Bush Administration abandoned its Middle East democracy agenda after Islamist parties made gains in Gaza and Egypt around the beginning of the Administration’s second term. Those events were enough for Israel and Egypt to convince the Bush Administration that democratic reform wouldn’t necessarily lead to peace and security — in fact, it could lead to the opposite. Suddenly Mubarak looked like our last, best hope for sustained stability in the Middle East. This was ironic since al-Qaeda’s primary complaint about the US is that we prop up undemocratic regimes like Mubarak’s Egypt.
So Domino Theory made a comeback after 9/11 and then went out of vogue again about four years later. And now it’s back. Tunisia, now Egypt. It looks likely that the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes, once fully democratized, will be reasonably American friendly. They look more like newly democratized Eastern European countries than Iran. And so we return to Domino Theory, or Reverse Domino Theory. Will more Middle Eastern regimes fall? Will Yemen be next? Syria? Will Bahrain fall? If Bahrain does fall, will the new regime still allow us to base The Fifth Fleet on their soil?
The questions have returned. And, ironically, the only functioning Middle Eastern democracy is the nation most vociferously opposed to further Arab democracy. The Israelis are terrified. They have relied on anti-democratic strongmen to ensure peace along most of their borders. How can they rely on a vaguely Islamist — or even Islamist-influenced — Egyptian government to maintain peace?
The fears are overblown. First, the dominoes will not fall nearly as quickly or nearly as forcefully as the Israelis fear. Bahrain will see change. Libya may see change. Chaos may reign in Libya, but Libya can’t get much unfriendlier. The reality is that these kinds of grand realignments always take longer than people expect. Israel and the United States will have ample time to realign their foreign policies to meet the new reality.
We won’t see a dramatically changed Middle East in six months. It’ll take a decade. Most of the undemocratic regimes in the Middle East will successfully put down their nascent revolutions — the revolutionary movements in countries like Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, Libya and the others are much less organized and enjoy a much smaller base of support than the revolutionary movement in Egypt. This could change at any moment but it currently appears unlikely… these regimes have learned from Egypt’s mistakes and are responding with strong carrots and strong sticks (a strategy that mixes generous pay raises and even outright bribes with brutal repression of protest). This strategy is likely to work in the short term but not in the middle to long term.
Meanwhile we have to understand the nature of the revolutionary movements in Tunisia, Egypt and other locations where they are likely to be successful. These are not the Islamist uprisings that bin Laden has pushed for over the past two decades. These are movements led by dissatisfied youth who have fallen in love with Western economics and Western ideals. These movements have more in common with Otpor than they do the Taliban. These movements will liberalize their nation’s economies and social structures. They will allow some Islamist influence, but the Islamist influence will be in the style of Abdullah Gül rather than Mullah Omar.
At the end of the day Israel and the United States can take comfort in Democratic Peace Theory, coupled with a basic fact: nations make war when it makes sense for them to make war. Countries with huge surpluses of military-aged males make war. Countries with economics going in the wrong direction make war. Countries with governments that need to distract the people from disaster at home make war. Countries on the right track do not make war.
We’ll all be okay. And Israel and the United States — Israel especially — must place itself on the right side of history. Trying in vain to prop up undemocratic regimes will only set Israel back. Memories are long in the Arab world. Being on the wrong side of these movements will ensure animosity towards Israel in these country’s new governments. But being on the right side of history… clearly stating that democracy is in Israel’s interest… clearly stating that Israel’s thoughts and prayers and benedictions lay with the protesters, although Israel does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. This is how Israel ensures its safety and security for the next fifty years. By embracing the democracy movement. It’s too bad that Netenyahu is an unreconstructed Likudnik. Oh, how we yearn for Sharon and Barak and, yes, Peres. And maybe most of all Rabin. Generals who learned peace over captains any day.
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