Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Accidental Revolution

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 14, 2011 --  

Historical accidents in revolutionary times can have far-reaching effects. But just because we can't control change, doesn't mean we shouldn't welcome it.

When Boris Yeltsin was elected president of the Soviet Russian republic 20 years ago last week, it was a surprise that determined the path of the collapsing Soviet regime.

This event was an accident of history -- Yeltsin was a Communist Party outcast whose career was supposed to be over. Yet he was allowed to win a provincial Soviet election as an experiment in Gorbachev's glasnost program. When the anti-Gorbachev coup failed in August, Yeltsin came out on top, and the Soviet Union dissolved into 15 states -- many of which had shown little interest in independence. Had Yeltsin's path to power not been dependent on the dissolution of the union, many Soviet republics would have stayed united with Russia, and the world map would undoubtedly look very different today.

Such accidental events can have far-reaching implications at times of great change, like that which exists in the Middle East today. The speed and breadth of the fall of communism from 1989 to 1991 is similar to the spread of revolutions across the Arab world this year. And as in Europe 20 years ago, historical accidents promise to shape the path of the future of the Middle East in ways that we currently find hard to imagine.

In three countries where violent revolutions are in progress, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, government opponents have varying agendas that will determine the fate of the states and their neighbors depending on which group comes out on top. In Syria, for example, opponents to the Alawite-dominated Assad regime include little known and embryonic Kurdish, sectarian Sunni, Islamist and liberal democratic movements. As in Soviet Russia, a lack of political openness in Syria means opposition groups are weak and poorly understood. Existing opposition groups are likely to be rapidly eclipsed by people and organizations that are still completely unknown.

In Yemen, where the revolution is further along and more violent, opposition tribal fighters nearly killed President Saleh in a bombing, forcing him to leave the country for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. Just as in Syria, nobody knows who will take over in Yemen, and any group that comes out on top could take the country in a different direction -- potentially causing trouble to spill over the borders into neighboring states on the Arabian peninsula. Particularly troubling to the Americans is the presence of organized Islamic extremists in the country.

Just as America worries about Islamists in Yemen, Israel and Iran worry about what will happen in Syria. Iran risks the loss of a key Arab ally, so it is providing outright support for the Assad regime. Israel simply worries about a post-Assad regime being even a worse enemy to deal with -- they essentially prefer the devil they know to a potential devil they don't. This is similar to the American position in Yemen.

This hand-wringing in the face of long-overdue change is overblown. Just because the worst can happen doesn't mean it will. Yes, the Ayatollah Khomeini successfully came out on top of a broader-based revolution against the Shah of Iran in 1979. But a liberal pro-Western leader came out on top of a chaotic revolution a quarter century later in nearby former Soviet Georgia.

Fear of change and the unknown must not lead to outright rejection of change. During the collapse of communism 20 years ago, many anti-communist cold warriors were so fearful of what would come next that in some cases they proposed aiding their purported enemies. This may sound like crazy behavior from long ago, but it is not far off from Israel's current position on Syria.

Nobody knows what the Middle East will look like 20 years from now. Two decades after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, we have many vibrant democracies (Poland, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, etc.), a handful of places where revolutionary change has proven superficial (Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan), and a few countries with even more repressive regimes (Belarus, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan). But on the whole, change in the revolutions was clearly positive.

The fact that we can't control the outcome of these revolutions doesn't mean we shouldn't welcome them. Yes, historical accidents in revolutionary times can lead to all kinds of unexpected and potentially unpleasant outcomes. Yet given the extreme injustice of the status quo, we should welcome the revolutions anyway.

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