The Unpredictability of Revolutions

Freedom and democracy are on the march. So, says President Bush. And, surely, something is on the march.

Though from the look of that Beirut crowd of 500,000, roaring for Sheik Nasrallah of Hezbollah, it may be premature to call this democracy. A day after that monster rally in a land of 4 million, the pro-Syrian prime minister, ousted after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, was voted back into office by parliament, an in-your-face defiance of America and “the international community.”

Rather than democracy, revolution may be on the march.

If the May elections in Lebanon are free, Hezbollah could move closer to power. While that might constitute pure democracy, is it something we Americans should applaud, subsidize or fight for?

In elections thus far in the Middle East, the returns have been mixed. In Iraq, Kurds voted for autonomy now, independence later. Shia voted as Ayatollah Sistani told them. Whether the new regime will be pro-Iranian, we know not. It will surely be less pro-American than the ousted Alawi regime. But the cost of a Shi’ite government in Iraq is already known: 1,500 U.S. dead, 10,000 U.S. wounded, 200 billion U.S. dollars gone.

Palestinians voted for Mahmoud Abbas, who had no credible opponent. In Gaza, they went 70 percent for Hamas. President Mubarak says there will be choices in Egypt’s elections this year. Will the Muslim Brotherhood be on the ballot? Will it be given political power commensurate with its voting strength? Will candidates be allowed to campaign against peace with Israel?

What gives one pause over all this “winds-of-change” “fire in the minds of men” rhetoric is that in previous uprisings in the Islamic world, the men with guns have risen from the ruins. In elections in the Middle East, Islamists seem to do well.

The 1992 Algerian elections were about to bring to power an Islamist regime. The nation’s military, with U.S. approval, shut them down.

In Turkey, elections have installed a party that denied us the use of Turkish bases for the war in Iraq, a slap across the face of a NATO ally and old benefactor. Visitors returning from Turkey today tell of open contempt of and hatred for the United States.

When we Americans think of revolution, we think of the Spirit of ’76 and the republic that came out of our War of Independence. But when Louis XVI was dethroned in 1789, that revolution gave us the guillotine, the Terror and the Napoleonic wars. When kings depart, democracy is not always at hand.

What is critical in a revolution is the character of the men who make it. When the czar abdicated, a democratic socialist took power, but a weak Alexander Kerensky was soon run out of the Winter Palace by Bolsheviks. After World War II, there came the Chinese and Cuban revolutions that looked to the Russian as the model. As did Pol Pot’s revolution in Cambodia, which came out of an earlier American intervention.

In the Middle East, rebellions and revolutions do not have Hollywood endings. In 1952, King Farouk of Egypt was ousted in a colonels’ coup from which the dictator Nasser emerged. In 1958, King Feisal of Iraq was overthrown, his body dragged through the streets of Baghdad. Saddam came out of the pile. In 1968, King Idris was overthrown. Enter Khadafi. In 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was ousted by Col. Mengistu. A million perished. In 1979, the Shah fell to a revolution that butchered all remnants of his pro-American government.

It is this history that causes one to smile at the giddiness of neocons who see events in Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon as vindication and harbingers of two, three, many “Prague springs” sweeping the Islamic world.

Could they be right? If so, President Bush will be viewed by history as a Reaganite visionary who, seeing deeper into the Islamic soul than critics, understood that an invasion of Iraq would unleash the liberating force of freedom, not the demonic force of Islamic revolution.

Yet, all revolutions are nationalistic. Even the American one made life hell for Loyalists who did not flee. Almost every revolution demands the expulsion of foreign troops. The Syrian army may leave Lebanon, but this presages a demand that the U.S. army get out of Iraq and the Israelis get off the Golan Heights and out of the West Bank.

“Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson.

George Bush, with his invasion of Iraq and January election, unleashed the whirlwind. Democratic forces have been inspired, and anti-democratic forces are also being uncaged.

We Americans, whose presence is unwanted, are becoming spectators at the outcome of an earthslide we started when we crossed the Kuwaiti frontier and marched up to Baghdad.

Patrick J. Buchanan [send him mail], former presidential candidate and White House aide, is editor of The American Conservative and the author of eight books, including A Republic Not An Empire and the upcoming Where the Right Went Wrong.